Be not afraid

“Oh my god‚ they’ll be able to use this to create a race of fearless soldiers‚” was U of T Professor David Lovejoy’s first thought after making his landmark discovery.

Three years ago Lovejoy and his colleagues discovered a family of hormones that‚ based on studies in rodents‚ seem to reduce fear. To discover a new hormone is an extremely rare feat. To discover an entirely new family of hormones is even less common.

A year ago Lovejoy created a startup company to do further research into these new hormones‚ and he has recently acquired funding for his company. He is still in the process of finalizing the contracts‚ so at the moment all he can say is that “the funding is coming from a group of private American investors‚ a lot of whom have invested because they have an interest in depression and bipolar disorder.” The identities of the investors should become known to the general public within the next few weeks.

Lovejoy is hoping to use his group of hormones‚ called “teneurin C terminal associated peptides‚” or TCAPs for short‚ to treat human emotional problems like manic depression. But he realizes that his hormones could be used for less altruistic purposes‚ perhaps even by military forces.

“No matter what you discover‚ an evil mind can turn it to something bad‚” he said. “This is the problem with discovery.”

But this concern will not deter him from investigating further TCAPs‚ he says. “Say I build a car to get from point A to point B; somebody could put armour and guns on it and make a tank out of it. If I create a hammer to build a house‚ somebody could use it to kill somebody. So when you come up with something like this‚ do you focus on the bad things‚ or do you focus on the good things?”

The general effect of Lovejoy’s hormones seems to be to “reduce anxiety.” In a world where “anxiety disorders” are attracting more and more attention from health professionals‚ Lovejoy’s discovery may be very significant indeed.

His colleague Dr. Denise Belsham‚ also of U of T‚ is also hoping that TCAPs will help people who suffer from anxiety problems. But she does not think we should worry about the hormones being hijacked by the military. “I’m not too concerned because there are other bioterrorist things out there that could be used long before therapeutics for anxiety could be used‚” she said. “I think it really will result in only good things.”

Lovejoy and his colleagues‚ however‚ have a long way to go before they will be able to create any sort of anxiety–reducing drug. They have only just scratched the surface of these hormones‚ and they still have a lot to figure out.

For example‚ the way TCAPs work is not yet fully understood. Inject these hormones into the brains of rats and you can dramatically reduce what lab techs would call their “fear response.” They won’t jump anywhere near as much if you try and startle them with a loud noise—they literally become less jumpy. If you put them on a suspended plank of wood‚ they are much more comfortable exploring around the edge.

“If you inject TCAPs into a high–emotionality rat‚ it will reduce its emotional levels‚” said Lovejoy. He also found that if you give TCAPs to hamsters‚ which normally run up to eight kilometres a night in search of food‚ they stop running altogether. In the lab “they get on the wheel‚ kind of look at it‚ and decide they don’t feel like running.”

“But here is the really interesting thing‚” Lovejoy continued. “If you inject TCAPs into the brains of low–emotionality rats‚ it will make them more active. It basically normalizes behaviour.”

Almost every hormone that we know of has a number of different‚ complicated effects on how you feel and act‚ and so it is very difficult to accurately summarize how any chemical will affect you. At its simplest level‚ TCAP reduces anxiety.

But despite the novelty of Lovejoy’s discovery and the potential he feels these hormones hold for treating human emotional problems‚ he has had a great deal of difficulty getting his work recognized by mainstream science.

“[Our work] was rejected [by journals] time and time again; we spent three years trying to publish our work. It was a novel family of hormones—well‚ most scientists think that families aren’t discovered‚ and they certainly aren’t discovered by little labs at U of T—they’re discovered by big Nobel Prize–winning labs.”

Lovejoy had the same problem trying to get funding for his company after creating it a year ago. “We got rejected three times from grant agencies‚ including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. They usually said ‘wow‚ this is great science‚ come back to us when you’re ready to do clinical trials.’”

But it takes a long time to go from lab rat studies to actually experimenting on humans‚ and they needed funding to do the preliminary research. Finally they received it‚ from US sources. Lovejoy is ecstatic. “It turns out that we are the first company in the history of the U of T to get American funding‚” said Lovejoy.

Lovejoy’s work on TCAPs was first published in June 2004 in the journal General and Comparative Endocrinology.