Proper neuronal function relies on the tightly regulated expression and discrete localization of voltage-gated sodium ion channels (NaVs), large protein complexes that control the movement of ions across cell membranes. A desire to better understand the role of NaVs in electrical signal conduction and the relationship between channel disregulation and specific human pathologies motivates the development of high precision reagents for their study in living systems. Real-time investigations of NaVs in live neuronal cells, however, are limited by the lack of available methods with which to modulate the function of individual NaV subtypes and to mark their cellular distributions and membrane expression levels. We are developing small molecule probes for NaV studies based on naturally occurring guanidinium toxins ? saxitoxin, gonyautoxins, and zetekitoxin. These agents function as molecular `corks' to occlude the extracellular mouth of the ion conductance pore. De novo chemical synthesis makes available modified forms of these toxins, which we will use in combination with protein mutagenesis and electrophysiology to gain insights into the three- dimensional structure of the toxin binding site. Such information is needed to advance a high fidelity NaV homology model, and will empower the rational design of toxin derivatives that display selective inhibition of individual NaV isoforms. Our structural investigations of toxin binding are informing the development of new fluorescent imaging and affinity-based tools, which will be utilized to explore dynamic events associated with NaV function. We wish to understand how modulation of NaV membrane expression and post-translational protein modifications influence the input-output responsiveness of neuronal cells following nerve injury. Toxin-derived fluorescent probes will be prepared and used to measure the spatial distributions and concentrations of membrane-inserted NaVs in live cells. These investigations will provide a quantitative analysis of how NaV structure (i.e., post- translational modification), ion gating, membrane distribution, and protein turnover rates are altered in neuronal cell injury models. In addition, our experimental design will allow us to assess the influence of investigational drugs, protein factors, and/or other small molecules on regulating NaV trafficking and restoring proper neuronal signaling. Ultimately, this work could lead to the identification of new therapeutic targets or lead compounds for pain treatment.
We are interested in understanding at a molecular level how nerve cells conduct electricity and how the process of electrical signaling is affected when a nerve is injured. Chemical synthesis makes possible access to selective reagents that can be used to investigate these complex biological phenomena. Results from these studies could help guide the development of new therapies for the treatment of acute and/or chronic pain.