Sea Creatures Teaching Scientists About Allergies, Other Ailments

September 17, 2012 - News Release

Better treatments for human ailments from depression to allergies to fertility may ultimately come from studies of sea hares and sea cucumbers, says a University of Guelph biologist and co-author of two new research papers.

Separate studies by research teams including Prof. Andreas Heyland, Department of Integrative Biology, appear this month in the journals Public Library of Science One (PLoS One) and Endocrinology.

Their studies of histamines and hormones not only tell us more about little-known marine creatures but may also help scientists and doctors learn more human health and disease, said Heyland.

“More medical research uses evolutionary insights in drug discovery and development,” he said.

For the PLoS study, Heyland and American researchers looked at histamines in sea cucumbers.

No previous studies had looked at histamine signalling in these creatures, soft-bodied relatives to starfish, sea urchins and other echinoderms.

Histamines are signalling chemicals found in many types of tissues. In humans, they are involved in nerve transmission and allergic responses, among other things.

Earlier this year, Heyland led a study showing that histamines control development of sea urchin larvae into adults.

For this new study, the researchers found evidence that histamines help control peristalsis, or contractions that help move food through the sea cucumber’s digestive tract. They also found first-time evidence of these molecules in neurons of adult skin and tentacles.

“In the vertebrate nervous system, histamine is localized,” said Heyland. “These findings may suggest that more specialized roles in vertebrates evolved from much more general functions.”

Learning more about these compounds might ultimately help drug companies develop antihistamines without side effects such as drowsiness or medications that may be taken during pregnancy. Understanding histamines might also help doctors learn more about the complex effects of antidepressants on the nervous system, said Heyland.

For the Endocrinology paper, he worked with other American scientists on glycoprotein hormones (GPHs) related to human follicle and thyroid stimulating hormones.

“These are absolutely critical hormones," he said. "They regulate diverse things from the reproductive cycle of the female to metabolism.”

The researchers studied sea hares, marine molluscs with round bodies and structures on their heads resembling rabbit ears. With a small number of large neurons compared with vertebrates, sea hares are useful for studying learning and memory.

The researchers found that genes coding for GPH-like hormones in these creatures are expressed in neurons that affect sensory input to the nervous system.

Learning how these hormones work in molluscs and how pertinent genes have evolved may tell us more about similar substances in humans, said Heyland. That, in turn, may ultimately point to new fertility drugs or medications for metabolic disorders.

Prof. Andreas Heyland
Department of Integrative Biology
519 824-4120, Ext. 56459

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