SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Researchers at UCSF uncovered the structure of the protein behind the burning sensation when people eat sushi with wasabi, a discovery that could improve future pain medications.

The protein, known as TRPA1, detects the irritant in wasabi and triggers a warning impulse. TRPA1 is also triggered by other irritants, including tear gas, and when body tissue is either inflamed or injured.

“The pain system is there to warn us when we need to avoid things that can cause injury, but also to enhance protective mechanisms,” UCSF professor and physiology chair David Julius, who co-authored the study, said in a university statement.

For years, scientists have tried to determine the structure of TRPA1 in order to design more effective pain relief, but the imaging was not sophisticated enough. Researchers used a new imaging technology called electron cryo-microscopy to image the protein at a resolution of 4 angstroms. By comparison, a sheet of paper is about 1 million angstroms thick.

Researchers are already experimenting with ways to block the response of the pain receptor. “A few drugs have been developed that target TRPA1, and in our 3-D structure we can see where one such drug binds,” said Julius.

According to NPR, drugs targeting TRPA1 could also be used to block out chronic itch associated with eczema and some nerve disorders.

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