04:59pm Tuesday 18 February 2020

Histamine H1 receptor breakthrough heralds improved allergy treatments

An international team of scientists led by BBSRC Diamond Fellow Professor So Iwata has successfully solved the complex 3D structure of the human Histamine H1 receptor protein. Published in the journal Nature this week, their discovery (note 1) improves our understanding of how Histamine and the Histamine H1 receptor interact in normal immune responses as well as in allergic reactions. This opens the way for the development of ‘third generation’ anti-histamines, specific drugs effective against various allergies without causing adverse side-effects.

The crystal structure of human Histamine H1 receptor with doxepin. Copyright: Diamond Light SourceThe crystal structure of human Histamine H1 receptor with doxepin.

Copyright: Diamond Light Source

The team, comprising leading experts from the USA (The Scripps Research Institute in California), Japan (Kyoto University), and the UK (Imperial College London and Diamond), worked across three continents for 16 months on the project. The structure was solved using Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron facility.

Professor So Iwata, David Blow Chair of Biophysics at Imperial College London, BBSRC Fellow and Director of the Membrane Protein Laboratory at Diamond (note 2), said: “It took a considerable team effort but we were finally able to elucidate the molecular structure of the Histamine H1 receptor protein and also see how it interacts with anti-histamines. This detailed structural information is a great starting point for exploring exactly how histamine triggers allergic reactions and how drugs act to prevent this reaction.”

H1 receptor protein is found in the cell membranes of various human tissues including airways, vascular and intestinal muscles, and the brain. It binds to histamine, an important function of the immune system, but in susceptible individuals this can cause allergic reactions such as hay fever, food and pet allergies. Anti-histamine drugs work because they prevent histamine attaching to H1 receptors.

Dr Simone Weyand, post-doctoral scientist at Imperial College London, who conducted much of the experimental work at Diamond, said: “First generation anti-histamines such as Doxepin are effective, but not very selective, and because of penetration across the blood-brain barrier, they can cause side effects including sedation, dry mouth and arrhythmia. By showing exactly how histamines bind to the H1 receptor at the molecular level, we can design and develop much more targeted treatments.”

The research was technically challenging because membrane proteins are notoriously difficult to crystallise – a step that is vital in solving protein structures using a synchrotron. The proteins were grown in cells at Kyoto University in Japan, then processed cell material was flown to Professor Raymond Stevens at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, who leads the GPCR Network of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences’ Protein Structure Initiative, and has developed powerful techniques to analyse membrane proteins and crystallise G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) funded by the National Institutes of Health Common Fund.

Dr Momi Iwata and Dr Simone Weyand in the Membrane Protein Laboratory at Diamond Light Source. Copyright: Diamond Light Source

Dr Momi Iwata and Dr Simone Weyand in the Membrane Protein Laboratory at Diamond Light Source. Copyright: Diamond Light SourceThe crystals took around two months to grow and when each batch of around 100 was ready, they were frozen and flown to the UK. Here, Prof Iwata and Dr Weyand worked with Diamond’s scientists to analyse a total of over 700 samples using the Microfocus Macromolecular Crystallography (MX) beamline I24, a unique instrument capable of studying tiny micro-crystals using an X-ray beam a few microns wide.

Prof Stevens said: “A key aspect of our program is to collaborate with the leading researchers in the world so that we can uncover the mysteries of how GPCRs work. To fully understand this large and important human protein family will take a global community effort and the study of multiple receptors with different techniques and approaches. The collaboration with the Iwata lab is a great example of success made possible by joining forces; in this case, our work on histamine H1 receptor helps to advance the field as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Prof Iwata added: “The fact that we’ve managed to solve this structure in 16 months starting from pure protein is very exciting as it shows what can be achieved when a team of experts pool skills and experience in sample preparation, experimental techniques and data analysis. Having the Membrane Protein Laboratory situated inside the Diamond synchrotron itself is a major advantage for projects like this. We’ve benefited from rapid-access to the beamline and round the clock support for our experiments and data analysis work.”

Professor Gerd Materlik, Diamond’s Chief Executive, said: “Solving this challenging structure so quickly is a significant achievement for Profs Iwata and Stevens, their groups and the I24 beamline team. I’m delighted that, in addition to providing access to cutting-edge research facilities, our scientists and technical experts have played an active role in this exciting project and I look forward to many future discoveries from the Membrane Protein Laboratory and the Microfocus MX beamline.”



Images can be downloaded* from: ftp://ftpanon.diamond.ac.uk/Histamine
*Please use Internet Explorer.

  • Image1: The crystal structure of human Histamine H1 receptor with doxepin
  • Image2: Prof So Iwata and Dr Simone Weyand working on the Microfocus Macromolecular Crystallography beamline at Diamond Light Source
  • Image3: Dr Momi Iwata and Dr Simone Weyand in the Membrane Protein Laboratory at Diamond Light Source
  • Images4&5: Dr Simone Weyand working on the Microfocus Macromolecular Crystallography beamline at Diamond Light Source
  • Image6: Prof So Iwata
  • Movie1: Rotating crystal structure of human Histamine H1 receptor with doxepin

Notes to editors

Paper: ‘Structure of the human histamine H1 receptor complex with doxepin’ DOI: 10.1038/nature10236

  • Allergies currently affect approximately one in four people. As many as half of those affected are children, and the incidence appears to be increasing (note 3)
  • Histamine H1 receptor protein belongs to the G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) family, which are major drug targets
  • Membrane proteins are the gateways that control what molecules pass in and out of cells and therefore play a critical role in how our cells react to environmental factors, nutrients, hormones and drugs
  • Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Membrane Protein Laboratory at Diamond is one of only a handful of laboratories in the world studying these very challenging molecules, which often take many years to solve


  1. This research was supported by the ERATO Human Receptor Crystallography Project from the Japan Science and Technology Agency, the Targeted Proteins Research Program of MEXT in Japan and the National Institutes of Health in the USA. Funding also came from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Grant-in-Aid for challenging Exploratory Research, the Mochida Memorial Foundation for Medical and Pharmaceutical Research, the Takeda Scientific Foundation and the Sumitomo Foundation.
  2. Prof So Iwata is also BBSRC Diamond Professorial Fellow, a Diamond Fellow and the Research Director of ERATO IWATA Human Receptor Crystallography project, funded by the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
  3. Source: Allergy UK www.allergyuk.org

About Diamond Light Source

Diamond Light Source produces the extremely intense X-ray beams required for looking at the molecular interactions involved in a variety of biological processes. Advances in structural biology have accelerated greatly as a result of access to the synchrotron facilities that have been developed around the world in the past 25 years. Researchers in the UK are at the forefront of this work and Diamond Light Source provides cutting edge facilities for protein structure determination.

Diamond currently has five experimental stations dedicated to structural biology as well as the on-site Membrane Protein Laboratory, recently developed in partnership with Imperial College London and funded by the Wellcome Trust. Since Diamond opened in 2007, over 500 protein structures have been solved there including enzymes associated with hypertension, tuberculosis and HIV.

  • Diamond Light Source is funded by the UK Government via the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and by the Wellcome Trust
  • For more information about Diamond visit www.diamond.ac.uk
  • Diamond generates extremely intense pin-point beams of synchrotron light of exceptional quality ranging from X-rays, ultra-violet and infrared. For example Diamond’s X-rays are around 100 billion times brighter than a standard hospital X-ray machine
  • Many of our everyday commodities that we take for granted, from food manufacturing to cosmetics, from revolutionary drugs to surgical tools, from computers to mobile phones, have all been developed or improved using synchrotron light

About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world’s best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment – underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial’s contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics . This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of a all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.

In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK’s first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.

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BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences and the largest single public funder of agriculture and food-related research.

Sponsored by Government, BBSRC’s budget for 2011-12 is around £445M which it is investing in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

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