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Open Access Highly Accessed Hypothesis

Targeting ligand-gated ion channels in neurology and psychiatry: is pharmacological promiscuity an obstacle or an opportunity?

Matt T Bianchi1* and Emmanuel J Botzolakis2

Author Affiliations

1 Neurology Department, Sleep Division, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA

2 Medical Scientist Training Program, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, TN, USA

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BMC Pharmacology 2010, 10:3  doi:10.1186/1471-2210-10-3

Published: 2 March 2010



The traditional emphasis on developing high specificity pharmaceuticals ("magic bullets") for the treatment of Neurological and Psychiatric disorders is being challenged by emerging pathophysiology concepts that view disease states as abnormal interactions within complex networks of molecular and cellular components. So-called network pharmacology focuses on modifying the behavior of entire systems rather than individual components, a therapeutic strategy that would ideally employ single pharmacological agents capable of interacting with multiple targets ("magic shotguns"). For this approach to be successful, however, a framework for understanding pharmacological "promiscuity" - the ability of individual agents to modulate multiple molecular targets - is needed.

Presentation of the Hypothesis

Pharmacological promiscuity is more often the rule than the exception for drugs that target the central nervous system (CNS). We hypothesize that promiscuity is an important contributor to clinical efficacy. Modulation patterns of existing therapeutic agents may provide critical templates for future drug discovery in Neurology and Psychiatry.

Testing the Hypothesis

To demonstrate the extent of pharmacological promiscuity and develop a framework for guiding drug screening, we reviewed the ability of 170 therapeutic agents and endogenous molecules to directly modulate neurotransmitter receptors, a class of historically attractive therapeutic targets in Neurology and Psychiatry. The results are summarized in the form of 1) receptor-centric maps that illustrate the degree of promiscuity for GABA-, glycine-, serotonin-, and acetylcholine-gated ion channels, and 2) drug-centric maps that illustrated how characterization of promiscuity can guide drug development.

Implications of the Hypothesis

Developing promiscuity maps of approved neuro-pharmaceuticals will provide therapeutic class-based templates against which candidate compounds can be screened. Importantly, compounds previously rejected in traditional screens due to poor specificity could be reconsidered in this framework. Further testing will require high throughput assays to systematically characterize interactions between available CNS-active drugs and surface receptors, both ionotropic and metabotropic.