A new study has identified a protein that is able to "sense" when the body is exercising and act on the blood vessels to influence circulation. Following this discovery, the researchers started to experiment with "Yoda1," which is a chemical compound that might be able to activate this protein.

woman joggingShare on Pinterest
An experimental compound might be able to activate an 'exercise sensor' protein that regulates blood flow. This, researchers suggest, might help to enhance the benefits of physical exercise in the future.

Researchers led by Prof. David Beech, from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, have recently identified one protein that plays a key role in regulating blood flow during exercise.

The ability to activate this protein at will could help to tackle cardiovascular diseases as well as type 2 diabetes. With this goal in mind, the researchers investigated a compound that could stimulate the protein.

The researchers' findings were published today in the journal Nature Communications.

'Exercise sensor' could spur novel treatments

Physical exercise speeds up the heart rate, meaning that when we are more active, more blood is pumped through the body. The researchers noticed that a protein called "Piezo1," which is found in the lining of blood vessels, or the endothelium, can perceive this change in the blood flow and act accordingly.

Piezo1, which the scientists refer to as an "exercise sensor," modifies the electrical balance in the lining of the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the stomach and the intestines.

These blood vessels are placed under an increased pressure when the blood flow intensifies with exercise, and the action of the Piezo1 protein is vasoconstricting, determining the vessels to narrow down.

This vasoconstriction reduces intestinal and stomachal circulation just enough so as to allow more blood to flow toward the brain and the muscles, which are the main "elements" engaged in physical exercise.

According to the researchers, the identification of this mechanism might help to devise new ways of tackling cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, which is a high-risk combination of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

Some of the benefits afforded by physical exercise, they explain, might be due to this blood flow regulation facilitated by Piezo1.

"If we can understand how these [biomolecular] systems work, then we may be able to develop techniques that can help tackle some of the biggest diseases afflicting modern societies. We know that exercise can protect against heart disease, stroke, and many other conditions. This study has identified a physiological system that senses when the mammalian body is exercising."

Prof. David Beech

Although the study identified the action of Piezo1 in mice, the scientists say that it is also present in humans, and that it is involved in the same biomolecular mechanism.

Is Yoda1 the answer?

Following the discovery of this protein, the researchers were interested in taking their study further to see whether or not they could influence Piezo1 to become active, as a first step in finding fresh pathways to treat cardiovascular and metabolic conditions.

They started experimenting with Yoda1, a chemical compound endearingly named after the well-known Star Wars character.

Through their experiments, the researchers noted that Yoda1 simulated the effect of an increased blood flow - typical of physical exercise - on the lining of the blood vessels. This suggested to Prof. Beech and his team the possibility of developing a new drug that might amplify the benefits of exercise.

"By modifying [Piezo1] in the intestines then perhaps we could overcome some of the problems of diabetes and perhaps this Yoda1 compound could target the Piezo1 in the intestinal area to have a functional effect," suggests Prof. Beech.

The scientists' next step from here will be to further modify Yoda1 for use in additional in vivo tests. For this purpose, Prof. Beech's team has already received funding from a U.K.-based charity organization sponsoring research on cardiovascular conditions.