Translocator protein

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Translocator protein (18kDa)
External IDs OMIM109610 MGI88222 HomoloGene574 ChEMBL: 5742 GeneCards: TSPO Gene
Species Human Mouse
Entrez 706 12257
Ensembl ENSG00000100300 ENSMUSG00000041736
UniProt P30536 P50637
RefSeq (mRNA) NM_000714 NM_009775
RefSeq (protein) NP_000705 NP_033905
Location (UCSC) Chr 22:
43.55 – 43.56 Mb
Chr 15:
83.56 – 83.57 Mb
PubMed search [1] [2]

Translocator protein (TSPO) is an 18 kDa protein mainly found on the outer mitochondrial membrane. It interacts with StAR (steroidogenic acute regulatory protein) to transport cholesterol into mitochondria. It was first described as peripheral benzodiazepine receptor (PBR), a secondary binding site for diazepam, but subsequent research has found the receptor to be expressed throughout the body and brain.[1] In humans, the translocator protein is encoded by the TSPO gene.[2][3] It belongs to family of tryptophan-rich sensory proteins.


In animals, TSPO (PBR) is a mitochondrial protein usually located in the outer mitochondrial membrane and characterised by its ability to bind a variety of benzodiazepine-like drugs, as well as to dicarboxylic tetrapyrrole intermediates of the haem biosynthetic pathway.

TSPO has many proposed functions depending on the tissue.[4] The most studied of these include roles in the immune response, steroid synthesis and apoptosis.

Cholesterol transport[edit]

TSPO binds with high affinity to cholesterol and may transport it across the mitochondrial membrane to stimulate steroid synthesis in relevant tissues.[5] However, a specific deletion of TSPO in steroidogenic Leydig cells did not impair their synthesis of testosterone.[6] Thus, a role for TSPO in steroid production is controversial.

Regulation in the heart[edit]

TSPO (Translocator protein) acts to regulate heart rate and contractile force by its interaction with voltage-dependent calcium channels in cardiac myocytes.[7] The interaction between TSPO and calcium channels can alter cardiac action potential durations, thus contractility of the heart. In healthy individuals, TSPO has a cardio-protective role. When TSPO is up-regulated in the presence of infections, it can limit the inflammatory response, which can be cardio-damaging.[8]


PBRs have many actions on immune cells including modulation of oxidative bursts by neutrophils and macrophages, and inhibition of macrophage secretion of cytokines inhibition of the proliferation of lymphoid cells and secretion of cytokines by macrophages.[9] Expression of TSPO is also linked to inflammatory responses that occur after ischemia-reperfusion injury, following brain injury, and in some neurodegenerative diseases.[citation needed]

Increased expression of TSPO is linked to the inflammatory responses in the heart that may cause myocarditis, which can lead to myocardial necrosis. TSPO is present in mast cells and macrophages, indicating its role in the immune system.[7] Oxidative stress is a strong contributing factor to cardiovascular disease, and often occurs because of inflammation caused by ischemia reperfusion injury.[10] Coxsackievirus B3 (CVB3) causes immune cells CD11b+ (present on macrophages) to stimulate inflammatory infiltration. Functionally, CD11b+ regulates leukocyte adhesion and migration to regulate the inflammatory response.[11] Following infection, CD11b+ is up-regulated, activating these immune responses, which then activate an increased expression of TSPO. These immune cells can cause myocarditis which can progress to dilated cardiomyopathy and heart failure.[11]


Ligands of TSPO have been shown to induce apoptosis in human colorectal cancer cells.[citation needed] In lymphatic tissues, TSPO modulates apoptosis of thymocytes via reduction of mitochondrial transmembrane potential.[12]

Stress adaptation[edit]

TSPO in the basal land plant Physcomitrella patens, a moss, is essential for adaptation to salt stress.[13]

Tissue distribution[edit]

TSPO is found in many regions of the body including the human iris/ciliary-body.[14] Other tissues include the heart, liver, adrenal and testis, as well as hemopoietic and lymphatic cells.[15] "Peripheral" benzodiazepine receptors are also found in the brain, although only at around a quarter the expression levels of the "central" benzodiazepine receptors located at the plasma membrane.[16]

Therapeutic applications[edit]

TSPO has been shown to be involved in a number of processes such as inflammation,[17] and TSPO ligands may be useful anti-cancer drugs.[18][19] Activation of TSPO was considered by some to be required for the synthesis of steroids[20][21] including neuroactive steroids such as allopregnanolone in the brain. This would make some TSPO ligands such as emapunil (XBD-173) useful as potential anxiolytics which may have less side effects than traditional benzodiazepine-type drugs.[22][23][24][25] This role is definitively cast into doubt with later data showing TSPO is not required for steroid production.[6]

A 2013 study led by researchers from USC Davis School of Gerontology showed that TSPO ligands can prevent and at least partially correct abnormalities present in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease.[26]

TSPO as a biomarker is a newly discovered non-invasive procedure, and has also been linked as a biomarker for other cardiovascular related diseases including: myocardial infarction (due to ischemic reperfusion), cardiac hypertrophy, atherosclerosis, arrhythmias, and large vessel vasculitis.[10] TSPO can be used as a biomarker to detect the presence and severity of inflammation in the heart and atherosclerotic plaques.[11] Inhibiting the over-production of TSPO can lead to a reduced incidence of arrhythmias which are most often caused by ischemia reperfusion injury.[10] TSPO ligands are used as a therapy after ischemia reperfusion injury to preserve the action potentials in cardiac tissue and restore normal electrical activity of the heart.[7] Higher levels of TSPO are present in those with heart disease, a change that is more common in men than women because testosterone worsens the inflammation causing permanent damage to the heart.[11]

The first high-resolution 3D solution structure of mammalian (mouse) translocator protein (TSPO) in a complex with its diagnostic PK11195 ligand was determined by means of NMR spectroscopy techniques by scientists from the Max-Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Goettingen in Germany in March 2014 (Jaremko et al., 2014) and has a PDB id: 2MGY. Obtained high-resolution clearly confirms a helical character of a protein and its complex with a diagnostic ligand in solution. The 3D structure of the mTSPO-PK11195 complex comprises five transmembrane α-helices (TM1 to TM5) that tightly pack together in the clockwise order TM1-TM2-TM5-TM4-TM3 (cytosol view). The mammalian TSPO in a complex with diagnostic ligand is nomomeric. The loop located in between TM1 and TM2 helices closes the entrance to the space between helices in which are bound with PK11195 molecule. Site-directed mutagenesis studies of mTSPO revealed that region important for PK11195 binding comprise amino acids from 41 to 51, because the deletion of this region resulted in the in the decrease in PK11195 binding (Fan et al., 2012).

The mammalian TSPO in a complex with diagnostic ligand is nomomeric.

L. Jaremko, M. Jaremko, K. Giller, S. Becker, M. Zweckstetter, Structure of the mitochondrial translocator protein in complex with a diagnostic ligand, Science, 343 (2014) 1363-1366.

J. Fan, P. Lindemann, M.G. Feuilloley, V. Papadopoulos, Structural and functional evolution of the translocator protein (18 kDa), Curr Mol Med, 12 (2012) 369-386.


Ligands of the TSPO are very useful for imaging of inflammation. For example, the radioligand [3H]-PK-11195 has been used in receptor autoradiography to study neuroinflammation following brain injury. The affinity of [11C]-PBR28 depends on a single polymorphism (rs6971) in the TSPO gene.[27]

Selective ligands[edit]


  • YL-IPA08
  • Ro5-4864 - original ligand with which TSPO receptor was characterised, now less used due to inter-species differences in binding affinity. Sedative yet also convulsant and anxiogenic in mice.[28]
  • Anthralin - 16kDa polypeptide, binds to both TSPO receptor and dihydropyridine-sensitive calcium channels with high affinity.[29]
  • Diazepam binding inhibitor (DBI) - 11kDa neuropeptide, potent agonist for TSPO receptor and stimulates steroidogenesis in vivo,[5][30][31] also negative allosteric modulator of benzodiazepine-sensitive GABAA receptors.[32]
  • DBI 17-50 fragment - active processing product of DBI



  • PK-11195 - potent and selective antagonist for both rat and human forms of TSPO.


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