Mechanisms of conotoxin inhibition of N-type (Cav2.2) calcium channels
N-type (Cav2.2) voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCC) transduce electrical activity into other cellular functions, regulate calcium homeostasis and play a major role in processing pain information. Although the distribution and function of these channels vary widely among different classes of neurons, they are predominantly expressed in nerve terminals, where they control neurotransmitter release. To date, genetic and pharmacological studies have identified that high-threshold, N-type VGCCs are important for pain sensation in disease models. This suggests that N-type VGCC inhibitors or modulators could be developed into useful drugs to treat neuropathic pain. This review discusses the role of N-type (Cav2.2) VGCCs in nociception and pain transmission through primary sensory dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons (nociceptors). It also outlines the potent and selective inhibition of N-type VGCCs by conotoxins, small disulfide-rich peptides isolated from the venom of marine cone snails. Of these conotoxins, ω-conotoxins are selective N-type VGCC antagonists that preferentially block nociception in inflammatory pain models, and allodynia and/or hyperalgesia in neuropathic pain models. Another conotoxin family, α-conotoxins, were initially proposed as competitive antagonists of muscle and neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR). Surprisingly, however, α-conotoxins Vc1.1 and RgIA, also potently inhibit N-type VGCC currents in the sensory DRG neurons of rodents and α9 nAChR knockout mice, via intracellular signaling mediated by G protein-coupled GABAB receptors. Understanding how conotoxins inhibit VGCCs is critical for developing these peptides into analgesics and may result in better pain management. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Calcium channels.