Programming GPCR signalling within the endocytic network; mechanisms and therapeutic applications

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Dept of Surgery and Cancer


Cells communicate to each other by sending and responding to chemical messages. Coordinating this communication is essential for correct functioning of every organ in the body. These messages include photons of light, chemicals that we smell, the food that we eat, mineral ions such as calcium, hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers of the brain). The chemical messages are received when they bind to specific proteins on the cell surface called receptors, which relay the message in to the cell. Our research is focussed on a family of receptors called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). Our genes encode for more than 800 different kinds of GPCRs that are capable of responding to numerous different messages. Each organ in the body has many different GPCRs. Importantly, the function of these receptors is disrupted in various diseases and disorders, including cancer, obesity, diabetes, blindness, heart disease, depression, Parkinson's Disease, recurrent miscarriage and pre-term birth, to name but a few. Although many prescribed drugs target GPCRs, there is a high demand for new compounds that are more specific, have fewer side effects, and that are active for longer. Developing these new drugs requires an in-depth understanding of the molecular machinery that controls the activity these receptors.

Once any cell receives external messages that bind to GPCRs, the activated receptors will relay specific signals to elicit an appropriate cellular response. This process is tightly controlled by the cell. One important mechanism is the rapid removal, or trafficking, of receptors from the cell surface in to interior compartments called endosomes, as a means of switching off these signals. However, we discovered that certain GPCRs recruited to specialized endosomes, which we termed very early endosomes (VEE), can switch on new signalling pathways. So, both duration and location of signals generated by GPCRs creates patterns that are critical for the cell, telling it whether to release more chemicals, activate particular genes, divide, or even die. If such signalling patterns are disrupted, or misdirected, they can lead to disease. However, our discovery also raises the possibility that drugs can be developed to redirect the receptor and change its function in a cell.

The aim of this project is to understand how a cell controls receptor activity by examining the molecules involved in trafficking and signal decoding of GPCRs from the VEE. Our recent work also revealed that trafficking to the VEE of a GPCR important in reproduction and in early pregnancy (the LH receptor) may be important in how the uterus responds to hormones produced by the embryo in early pregnancy, and that these pathways may be altered in women suffering recurrent miscarriage. We will also assess the role of this compartment to other GPCRs by studying a receptor important in sensing carbohydrates in our food (the FFA2 receptor) and another that is targeted in IVF, cancer and menopause (the FSH receptor). For FSH and LH receptor we will determine whether drugs can alter the trafficking of specific GPCRs to the VEE or other endosomal compartments, and in turn impact on receptor activity. The outcome of this work will help us understand fundamental mechanisms of how cells communicate. As GPCRs are common drug targets, detailed knowledge of how GPCRs are regulated by the VEE may even provide new avenues for more effective treatments of a number of conditions that involve this superfamily of receptors.

Technical Summary

Membrane trafficking of receptors represents a fundamental mechanism to translate complex signalling networks into specific downstream responses. This is the case for numerous cellular signalling systems, including the pathways activated by the superfamily of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). Thus, a detailed molecular description of how membrane trafficking pathways are indispensable in controlling GPCR signalling are key in the fundamental understanding of cellular regulation and how aberrant signalling can result in disease. This an area of precedence in biology and medicine due to the ongoing search to identify GPCR modulators with high specificity. We have identified a novel endosomal compartment critical for the sorting and signalling of distinct GPCRs, termed the very early endosome (VEE). Using a model GPCR for the VEE, the luteinizing hormone receptor (LHR), this project will identify the fundamental mechanisms spatially encoding GPCR activity at the VEE and its downstream roles. The adaptor protein APPL1 is so far, the only VEE protein known to regulate sorting from the VEE and endosomal GPCR signalling. Spatially encoded signalling from the VEE has a critical impact on downstream cellular responses. Altering LHR trafficking to the VEE in the human endometrium is linked to impaired decidualization (cell differentiation) with implications in recurrent miscarriage. Other GPCRs, including the FSH receptor and short chain fatty acid receptor FFA2, also require internalization to VEE/APPL1 endosomes for their function. Employing super-resolution imaging, coupled with quantitative proteomic profiling, and biochemical signal analysis in heterologous and primary human endometrial 2D and 3D cultures, we will identify the core molecular machinery directing regulated sorting and signalling from this novel compartment, profile the GPCR signal pathways that are spatially encoded by the VEE, and identify impact both physiologically and pharmacologically.

Planned Impact

Who might benefit from this research?
This project aims to address fundamental questions of how G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) signal diversity is translated to specific cellular and physiological responses. This an area of precedence in biology and medicine due to the intense interest and demand in identifying GPCR modulators with high specificity. Thus, identified beneficiaries outside the academic arena are primarily those in industry and the commercial sector. GPCRs are the most successfully exploited class of drug targets, and their role in pathogenesis of human disease maintains the strong interest in new basic science discoveries by these sectors. In addition to companies investing in targeting these receptors (Merck, Pfizer, Heptares, Trevena Inc, Ferring, GSK, TocopheRx, EMD Serono), new basic science findings in GPCR research are of high interest across this sector for other GPCRs and commercial sectors creating GPCR screening tools for research (e.g. DiscoveRx, CisBio). This work could have an impact long-term for clinical translation and public health, but also on the UK economy by reducing financial burdens of the NHS (in addition to commercialization). This work has also identified those involved in Education as a beneficiary, from the training of the postdoctoral posts on this project to secondary schools, information resource of public and patient education directly or via Charities.

How might they benefit from this research?
GPCRs are an important target for therapeutic intervention and many successful drugs on the market today modulate their activity. The research proposed has the potential to provide information for design of novel screening platforms, which could be developed commercially as an assay, used in industry or academic labs. Also in identifying strategic targets that feature defined modulation of receptor activity, rather than global agonists/antagonists. A rapidly growing area of high interest in the drug discovery industry is to design GPCR compounds that show bias towards specific receptor activities. Although we will focus on specific model GPCRs for these pathways, the fundamental nature of the findings from our proposed project will uncover mechanisms that will be pertinent to other GPCRs and associated conditions involving these receptors. We intend to establish advisory panel meetings with members from Industry, Academia and Third sector, throughout the project and mediated by Imperial's Corporate and Enterprise Partnerships Team, that will facilitate in steering the path to commercialization and knowledge exchange platforms for stakeholders. In addition, current industry collaborators of the PI and Co-PIs will be contacted during the award in addition to engagement with the Imperial College Cross-Faculty Centre for Drug Discovery Science, led by Co-PI (E.T). If Industrial collaboration and/or commercial exploitation are successful this could escalate in to long-term benefits in UK economy from revenue, employment and ultimately in health benefits. The Co-PI (J.B) will enable translational opportunities by forming links with clinicians and awareness opportunities for patients and their families e.g. via Tommy's highly successful social media campaign. Imperial College London and University of Warwick also have strong commitments to both engaging general public and in education in Secondary schools. Training that the posts will receive would be beneficial for any employment sector by the development of transferable skills. These include communication skills, project and time management, problem solving, public engagement, information technology and mentoring.


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Abbara A (2020) Kisspeptin receptor agonist has therapeutic potential for female reproductive disorders. in The Journal of clinical investigation

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Caengprasath N (2019) Hardwiring wire-less networks: spatially encoded GPCR signaling in endocrine systems. in Current opinion in cell biology

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Kounde CS (2020) A caged E3 ligase ligand for PROTAC-mediated protein degradation with light. in Chemical communications (Cambridge, England)

Description 1. We have identified that small molecule drugs to the follicle-stimulating hormone receptor can modify cell signaling via altering its dependency on a key protein of the receptor signaling/trafficking pathway, APPL1. This work could mean that future FSHR ligand screens that leverage APPL1-sensitivity could "customize" the FSHR activity for specific applications such as IVF or hormone-dependent cancer.

2. The short chain fatty acid receptor (FFA2) that responds to metabolites of a high fibre diet, is targeted the very early endosomal compartment, which is the focus of this grant, to mediate its anorectic gut hormone secretion from enteroendocrine cells in the colon.
Exploitation Route 1. This work could mean that future FSHR ligand screens that leverage APPL1-sensitivity could "customize" the FSHR activity for specific applications such as IVF or hormone-dependent cancer.

2. A new mechanistic understanding of FFA2's role in appetite could identify novel drug targets that enhance the action of short chain fatty acids via food supplements.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description A surface plasmon resonance facility for label-free analysis of biomolecular interactions
Amount £182,677 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/S019529/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2019 
End 06/2020
Description Directing luteinising hormone receptor activity in vivo: A convergent approach to study GPCR molecular complexes
Amount £1,065,319 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/V006142/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2021 
End 04/2024
Description Exploiting CaSR-mediated vagal signalling to treat type 2 diabetes
Amount £282,085 (GBP)
Funding ID 18/0005886 
Organisation Diabetes UK 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2019 
End 02/2022
Description Gonadotropin action in the polycystic ovary
Amount £487,559 (GBP)
Funding ID MR/S025235/1 
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2019 
End 08/2022
Description MICA: Investigating kisspeptin receptor signalling to improve the treatment of reproductive disease
Amount £767,834 (GBP)
Funding ID MR/W018934/1 
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 03/2025
Description Collaboration with Crinetics 
Organisation Crinetics Pharmaceuticals
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Our publications supported by this grant on FSHR and KISS1R have led to a new discussion with Crinetics.
Collaborator Contribution Discussions are underway to provide small molecule ligands and act as an Industrial partner on a funding application currently being prepared.
Impact Currently preparing a joint grant application.
Start Year 2020
Description Collaboration with Merck 
Organisation Merck
Country Germany 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Contributed to expert meeting on gonadotropins and currently writing an opinion paper.
Collaborator Contribution Organised expert meeting on gonadotropins and currently writing an opinion paper.
Impact Expert meeting involving clinicians and basic scientists in the gonadotrophin field. Publication: Ernesto Bosch Aparicio; Carlo Alviggi; Manuela SIMONI; Pascale Crepieux; 'Alessandro Conforti'; Shachar Kol; Vincenzo ROCHIRA; Peter Samir Heskjær Al Humaidan; Nick Raine-Fenning; 'Hanyaloglu, Aylin C'; Thomas D'Hooghe; Monica Lispi; Dana Chuderland. "Reduced FSH and LH action: Implications for medically assisted reproduction" Human Reproduction (accepted).
Start Year 2019
Description Primary School Visit STEM week 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Engage with Reception year classes to discuss their view on what a scientist does and 'looks like" as part of a drive to encourage more females in to science. Myself as female PI took female members of the team, at postgraduate and postdoctoral level. We also conducted an experiment to create smoking bubbles to help facilitate increased interest in science.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Primary school visit and workshop for STEAM week March 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I attended a primary school with the postdoctoral research associate on this award and two postgraduate students to 3 Reception Year Classes (~90 students) to disucss on what a scientist 'looks like' with interactive games to help the discussion. We also carried out an experiment with a Year 1 class (30 students) and asked them to create their own lab book entry of the experiment. The experiment was to illustrate osmosis by placing celery stalks in water with different coloured food dye. The students worked in pairs to set up their experiment and reported in the lab book their observations. This activity was also important public engagement training for the postdoc on this grant, and the postgraduate students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Workshops at Primary school for STEM week 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Science workshop on DNA for Year 3 primary school students. Team members involved in delivering workshop included postdocs funded on this BBSRC award, as part of their training. ~90 pupils attended the workshop. The goal was to engage students in science and interest to a group of diverse backgrounds. Children responded positively, including increased interest in further science activities, including from the school, and an interest in further study and as a career. This was also an excellent training opportunity for the PDRA on this BBSRC grant in communication and public engagement. This activity was showcased by Imperial College London, to highlight outreach activities within the department (see URL link below).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021