Screening Technologies for Inward Rectifier Potassium Channels: Discovery of New Blockers and Activators
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K+ channels play a critical role in maintaining the normal electrical activity of excitable cells by setting the cell resting membrane potential and by determining the shape and duration of the action potential. In non-excitable cells, K+ channels establish electrochemical gradients necessary for maintaining salt and volume homeostasis of body fluids. Inward rectifier K+ (Kir) channels typically conduct larger inward currents than outward currents, resulting in an inwardly rectifying current versus voltage relationship. This property of inward rectification results from the voltage-dependent block of the channels by intracellular polyvalent cations and makes these channels uniquely designed for maintaining the resting potential near the K+ equilibrium potential (EK). The Kir family of channels consist of seven subfamilies of channels (Kir1.x through Kir7.x) that include the classic inward rectifier (Kir2.x) channel, the G-protein-gated inward rectifier K+ (GIRK) (Kir3.x), and the adenosine triphosphate (ATP)-sensitive (KATP) (Kir 6.x) channels as well as the renal Kir1.1 (ROMK), Kir4.1, and Kir7.1 channels. These channels not only function to regulate electrical/electrolyte transport activity, but also serve as effector molecules for G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) and as molecular sensors for cell metabolism. Of significance, Kir channels represent promising pharmacological targets for treating a number of clinical conditions, including cardiac arrhythmias, anxiety, chronic pain, and hypertension. This review provides a brief background on the structure, function, and pharmacology of Kir channels and then focuses on describing and evaluating current high-throughput screening (HTS) technologies, such as membrane potential-sensitive fluorescent dye assays, ion flux measurements, and automated patch clamp systems used for Kir channel drug discovery.