Jack – My Academic and Professional Career So Far!

Written by Jack O’Donnell

My time studying at Bristol

Before joining Metrion in November 2022, I studied at the University of Bristol for four years. I started my undergraduate degree in 2018, studying Biomedical Sciences which covered a wide range of biologically processes. I particularly enjoyed the pharmacology modules, finding the practical aspects the most exciting. My third-year dissertation involved the molecular modelling of a novel delta opioid agonist SNC80. The project involved investigating the factors that influence how a ligand is docked to a receptor, navigating Chimera software to make 3D models of receptor-ligand complexes to visualise the delta-opioid receptor complex and observe the intermolecular interactions.

I continued studying at Bristol, undertaking a master’s degree by research. My project led to me studying receptor signalling and pathways that have been activated by opioids. I performed binding assays using Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer and Radioligand binding techniques to quantify the affinities and efficacies of eight different µ-opioid receptor agonists. Some of the compounds I studied are well known, such as morphine and fentanyl. I also studied some lesser-known compounds such as isotonitazene and etonitazene which have been appearing more frequently in recreational overdose deaths in USA.

Jack Cell Culture 1
Jack O’Donnell

My Role at Metrion

During my masters, I enjoyed culturing and being responsible for the preservation of my own cell line. I applied for the Cell Culture Associate Scientist role at Metrion to continue working in cell culture, with the opportunity to work with various different cell lines. While working at Metrion, I have enhanced my cell culture technique, learning new methods and protocols for growing cell lines. I look forward to developing my cell culture skills throughout my time at Metrion.

Zeki – From Ants to Ion Channels

Written by Dr. Zeki Ilkan

From ants to ion channels

My first encounter with science was using a toy microscope that my parents gave me as a present. I remember the immense excitement I got visually analysing onion skins and ants in greater detail. During my high school years in Cyprus, my enthusiastic and committed teachers (and the experience of upgrading to a real microscope) solidified my passion for the sciences, especially chemistry and biology. I graduated from Imperial College London with a BSc in Biochemistry in 2011, and an MRes in Biomedical Research in 2013 with distinction. As part of my MRes degree, I completed two six-month research projects in the field of cardiovascular medicine and have since been fascinated by the physiology of the heart and the vasculature. Motivated by the high morbidity/mortality rates from cardiovascular disease both in my community and worldwide, I wanted to understand the molecular pathophysiology of the cardiovascular system through research. I was awarded a Medical Research Council (MRC) Doctoral Training Studentship to pursue a PhD in cell physiology and pharmacology at the University of Leicester. During my doctoral studies, I discovered that human platelets express the mechanosensitive Piezo1 cation channels which can sense various levels of shear stress in the circulation and respond by elevating intracellular levels of calcium. In pathological conditions, this can significantly increase the possibility of spontaneous platelet activation. This important discovery indicated that these ion channels could serve as possible therapeutic targets in the treatment of thrombosis and stroke.

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Dr Zeki Ilkan – Metrion Biosciences

From academia to industry

My interest in the pathological role of ion channels motivated me to join Mount Sinai Health System in New York to investigate how mitochondrial ion channels and associated membrane proteins can promote cardiac rhythm disorders. I investigated the therapeutic potential of classical pharmacological tools and novel gene silencing techniques in the inhibition of ion channel activity involved in the dissemination of toxic oxidising agents within the diabetic heart tissue which cause cardiac rhythm disorders. Here, I used a range of electrophysiological and molecular techniques, including the high-resolution optical action potential mapping in Langendorff-perfused hearts.         

Having been fascinated with the workings of ion channels, I could not resist the desire to finally learn the ‘gold-standard’ patch-clamp technique. In 2019, I joined the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford as a British Heart Foundation (BHF) post-doctoral scholar. There, I investigated the role of chloride channels in pericytes, contractile cells that surround capillaries, in the regulation of blood flow in the brain and their potential as therapeutic targets in the treatment of strokes. I discovered the role of TMEM16A chloride channels in pericyte contractility in the brain cortex which regulate blood flow through capillaries. This important study identified this channel as a novel therapeutic target for the treatment of ‘no-reflow’ phenomenon which follows cerebral ischaemia. At Oxford, getting first-hand experience in drug discovery projects through collaborations with industry partners sparked an interest in transforming research knowledge into drug development.        

From Oxford to Cambridge (via San Francisco)

I first met Metrion Biosciences through a Metrion-branded stress ball waiting for me at my new office desk in Oxford. It must have been picked up by a colleague or my supervisor and inadvertently placed there. I then received a phone call by a recruiter informing me about Scientist roles at the company during a time I was very busy publishing a paper. About a year later, at a Biophysical Society Annual Meeting in San Francisco where I was a speaker, I had the perfect opportunity to hear more about Metrion and discuss my growing interest in applying for a position. A month after this meeting, I was invited to Metrion for an interview. I am now a Scientist at Metrion and am delighted to be part of this wonderful team and for the invaluable opportunity to expand my research knowledge and electrophysiology skills into the industry world.

Thomas’s Career So Far

Written by Dr. Thomas Hill

My introduction to the world of drug discovery

My scientific career started at around the time I learnt the words “why” and “how”, with my first school report stating that “Tom likes to learn new things and tell people about them”. Fast forward to 2008, in the middle of a financial crisis, I have just finished a BSc in Forensic Science and I am standing talking to my supervisor at graduation asking their advice on how to get a job in Forensics. I was recommended to read for an intensive 1-year Masters in Toxicology at the University of Surrey, which I started 5 weeks later. This was arguably the most important year of my life. I was firstly introduced to the world of drug discovery and to my future wife – Charlotte (Charlotte’s Patch Clamp Journey So Far… • Metrion Biosciences).

Thomas Hill photo
Thomas Hill – Metrion Biosciences

Putting my skills into practice

After the Masters, I worked as an intern in the DMPK department at UCB, where I was able to put into practice many of the skills that I had acquired and really cemented my love of drug discovery. Following this internship, I went on to do a PhD where I helped to develop cannabis-based treatments for epilepsy, sponsored by GW Pharmaceuticals and Otsuka pharmaceutical working alongside Charlotte. The group covered two major disciplines, electrophysiology, and behavioural neuroscience.I worked within the behavioural side of the group, looking over with interest at my wife who was learning both manual patch clamp and multi-electrode array.

After my PhD, I was invited to interview for a position as a Pharmacology Project Manager at GW pharmaceuticals, where I managed the preclinical development of treatments for neurodegenerative disorders, oncology, and epilepsy (as well as dabbling in PK when needed). I loved the science we were doing and developing drugs for people with rare diseases, but I missed the lab.

Getting back in the lab

So, I took up a Post-Doctoral position in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland working with Prof. David Henshall, where I worked on microRNA-based treatments and diagnostics for epilepsy, picking up both tethered and telemetry based in vivo electrophysiology. Having had some time to recover from her Ph.D. and rediscovering her enjoyment of electrophysiology while writing a book chapter, my wife wanted to get back to the world of Drug Discovery and so applied for a job at Metrion, which brought me back to the UK just as the COVID-19 pandemic got started.

Helping during the pandemic then starting work in the CRO industry

Upon my return to the UK, I wanted to help with the pandemic in the only way I knew how working in science. I started a job at the Cambridge Covid Test Centre (employed by Charles River), where I prepared samples for PCR testing. I was then promoted to Team Lead of the Technology Development department, where I helped to evaluate new testing methods, optimise the testing process and introduce a novel approach to making samples safe to handle in the lab. After the Government closed the testing labs in Cambridge, I used my knowledge to help optimise a start-up Covid testing lab in Cambridge. After spending more than a year working in Covid labs, I got a job in the Ion Channels Group at Charles River, where I learned how to use both the FLIPR and Qube platforms. I am excited to be working at Metrion and further my career in Ion Channel Drug Discovery.

Katie – Expanding my skills to the world of ion channels

Written by Dr. Katie Puddefoot

Volunteering sparked my interest in neuroscience

My interest in Neuroscience started when I was sixteen and I became a volunteer for my local Parkinson’s UK branch. My volunteering with the charity gave me exposure to the world of neuroscience research and motivated me to pursue my scientific studies to degree level. I graduated with a BSc in Biochemistry from the University of Bath in 2017. I was attracted to the degree programme for the breadth of knowledge covered and the ability to select modules from the Schools of Biological Sciences, Pharmacy and Pharmacology, and Chemistry. I chose to focus on modules related to neuroscience, allowing me to study the basics of neuronal function and how this can relate to neurological disorders. As part of my degree, I undertook a placement year at Oxford Immunotec, working in their diagnostics laboratory carrying out routine blood tests for TB. This taught me valuable lab skills and how to work within a heavily regulated industry.

Blog Photo Katie 002
Katie Puddefoot – Scientist, Metrion Biosciences

Industry experience before returning to academia

Following my time at the University of Bath, I moved back to Oxford, where I worked as a Laboratory Assistant at ProImmune Ltd., in their Cellular Analysis Services department. Here, I further expanded my bench skills, learning a variety of molecular biology and cell culture techniques. My experience within industry gave me an insight into the world of biotechnology and made me want to return to academia to gain a PhD, so that I could further climb the industrial ladder.

Trying my hand at manual patch clamp

In 2018, I started my PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Leicester and was finally introduced to the world of electrophysiology. I was fortunate enough to be funded by the Midlands Integrative Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership, giving me the opportunity to carry out a three-month rotation in the lab of Dr Mark Wall at the University of Warwick. Here, I learnt manual patch clamp techniques in rat brain slices, studying the effects of adenosine on thalamocortical neurons. Taking these newly learnt skills, I returned to the University of Leicester to the lab of Dr Jonathan McDearmid to complete my PhD project. My PhD focused on how pharmacological inhibitors of the proteasome affect the synaptic and intrinsic properties of larval zebrafish motoneurons and neuromuscular junction function and formation. My PhD showed me that of all the techniques I had learnt to date, electrophysiology is the one I felt I had the most affinity for.

My new role at Metrion

I knew that following my PhD I wanted to pursue a career within industry where I could continue to expand on my electrophysiology skills. Hence, I attended the Cambridge Ion Channel Forum in Spring 2022, hosted by Metrion Biosciences and AstraZeneca. I was impressed with the work presented at the forum, so I applied for a Scientist role at Metrion Biosciences. I am excited for the opportunity to expand my electrophysiology skills to the world of ion channel drug discovery and to be working back in industry once again.

Catherine’s Career So Far

Written by Dr. Catherine Hodgson

Ion Channels and Patch-Clamp

In 2014, I graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology with Industrial/Professional Experience. In the first weeks of my degree, my classmates and I were asked by our personal tutor (an electrophysiologist) to give a group presentation on Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann, and their 1991 Nobel Prize for the development of the patch clamp technique. Although my undergraduate studies were very niche and covered a wide range of both neuroscience and psychology topics, ion channels and patch clamp continued to fascinate me whilst others seemed to shy away. Thus, I was very excited to gain an industrial placement position at Novartis, Horsham, where I used the automated QPatch system to screen compounds against TMEM16A and to conduct a mutational study investigating both channel function and compound binding. There, I also learnt a lot about the drug discovery process and the undeniable value of multidisciplinary research.

Catherine Hodgson – Metrion Biosciences

A Different Path

Circumstances led me on a slightly different path post-degree. I first worked in the third sector in research developing a mental health programme for drug and alcohol treatment services, and then on a neuroimaging project at the University of Manchester studying the effects of maternal mental illness on the development of language recognition in infants. Although I value those years for the skills and maturity I gained, I missed life in the lab and ion channels.

Back to the World of Ion Channels!

In 2018, a position opened up at the University of Leeds for a Research Assistant in Ion Channel Pharmacology. The interview for this position introduced me to a couple of academics at Leeds who encouraged me to keep pursuing a PhD rather than one year of postgraduate study. I took their advice and that year I commenced my PhD in Leeds with Drs Jon Lippiat and Ste Muench examining the molecular and structural bases of the Kv4.2 complex. Throughout my PhD, I expanded my lab skillset to include some structural techniques and manual patch clamp. Although I quickly appreciated that you cannot learn patch clamp from a textbook or watching someone else and it had to be a case of failing a thousand times over at first, I soon found my enthusiasm for ion channels again.

Beyond my PhD and starting at Metrion

Considering my career post-PhD, I felt I wanted variety and to venture back into ion channel drug discovery. My PhD supervisor, Jon, gave the first Metrion webinar on KNa1.1 inhibitors and through him, the webinar series and my own research, I was impressed to learn about the range of services Metrion offers, what I could be taught, and the values the company upholds. Thus far, everyone has been very welcoming and using the QPatch again has been like riding a bike!

Yasmin – About Me

Written by Yasmin Henry

My Criminology Studies

Prior to joining Metrion in August 2022, I studied at the University of Lincoln for four years. My undergraduate degree was in Criminology, in which I learned many different things ranging from the nature/nurture debate as to whether a criminal is born or made. This encompassed conversations surrounding Freudian theory and how criminality comes about. I also enjoyed studying modules about the prison system and whether it is outdated with the way criminals are treated and dealt with by the criminal justice system. I spent my third year writing my dissertation on the criminal justice system and prisons and their effect on prisoner’s mental health. My findings revealed that the system should try to increase the use of rehabilitation as an alternative to punishment as criminals are more likely to respond better and are less likely to reoffend in the future.

Yasmin Henry
Yasmin Henry – Metrion Biosciences

Business Management

After my undergraduate degree, I decided to do a Master’s degree in business management in which I decided to stay at the University of Lincoln. Within this degree, I studied many different modules such as entrepreneurial capability in which I was able to create my own new product. This  was a fitness QR code that could be sold to gyms and individuals and used to see different fitness regimes and track their progress. The QR code would continually update itself to keep the regimes fun and new, as this is where a lot of people lose motivation in fitness. I also studied modules such as international marketing, finance and organisational psychology which I found very interesting. I have come to learn that I use the skills I acquired within this degree as part of my everyday job at Metrion. This includes aspects of the marketing modules, which I am putting into practice regularly, especially the digital side including social media.

My role at Metrion

Since I started working for Metrion I have found that my role is extremely varied and I have the chance to work with many different people, where I can learn a lot of new skills and develop professionally. I have loved every minute of this so far and I can’t wait to see what my future within Metrion brings!

Professor David Sheppard presents on “Cystic Fibrosis: Rescuing Faulty Channels with Targeted Therapies”

Written by Dr Sophie Rose and Professor David Sheppard


Transformative therapies targeting the root cause of disease are now available for around 90% of individuals living with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) following the recent FDA and EMA approval of the triple drug combination of Elexacaftor, Tezacaftor and Ivacaftor. Professor David Sheppard (DS) from the University of Bristol presented work undertaken in collaboration with both the University of Manchester and Pfizer investigating the dysfunction of the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) channel in CF and its rescue with small molecules. The presentation focused initially on targeted therapies for the most common cause of CF, the F508del variant in the CFTR gene. This was followed by a summary of work undertaken with Pfizer on a novel CFTR potentiator, which enhances CFTR activity and its use in conjunction with Ivacaftor to restore greater function to faulty channels in CF.

Identification of the defective gene responsible for CF

DS began by highlighting the long road to developing therapies for CF that target the root cause of disease. Work by an army of researchers led by Collins, Riordan and Tsui led to the identification and cloning of the defective gene responsible for CF in 1989. With the CFTR gene identified, researchers raced to identify the function of the CFTR protein and understand how disease-causing CFTR variants lead to a loss of function of this protein.

The structure of CFTR

When the CFTR gene was identified, it was recognised that its protein product was a membrane protein composed of five domains: two transmembrane domains, each with six a-helices which span the lipid bilayer; two nucleotide-binding domains, containing amino acid sequences known to interact with ATP and a fifth regulatory domain, a unique feature of CFTR distinguished by multiple consensus phosphorylation sites. This structure of CFTR placed it in a large family of transport proteins called ATP-binding cassette transporters, found in bacteria, plants and animals including humans. Advances in structural biology, led to the publication in 2016 of the first atomic resolution structure of CFTR, showing a dephosphorylated, ATP-free configuration of CFTR. In this configuration, the transmembrane domains form an inverted V-shape closed towards the outside of the channel, and the nucleotide-binding domains are separated by the regulatory domain. The structure of CFTR in a phosphorylated, ATP-bound configuration reveals that upon phosphorylation, the regulatory domain moves out of the way allowing the nucleotide-binding domains to dimerise and the transmembrane domains to align vertically.

DN Sheppard photo
Professor David Sheppard

Understanding how the protein functions

In contrast to most ATP-binding cassette transporters, CFTR is an anion channel with complex regulation. DS reviewed the ATP-driven nucleotide-binding domain model of CFTR channel gating developed by Vergani and Gadsby to explain how ATP controls CFTR activity before atomic resolution structures of CFTR were solved. Two ATP-binding sites are formed at the interface of the nucleotide-binding domain dimer. These ATP-binding sites have distinct properties. The first is a site of stable ATP binding, whereas the second is a site of rapid ATP hydrolysis. Once the regulatory domain has been phosphorylated, cycles of ATP binding and hydrolysis at the nucleotide-binding domains control channel gating. ATP binding at both ATP-binding sites is required for channel opening, whereas ATP hydrolysis at the second ATP-binding site leads to dimer separation and prompt channel closure. DS highlighted how transitions between the closed and open channel observed in single-channel recordings represent conformational changes in the CFTR protein driven by cycles of ATP binding and hydrolysis at the nucleotide-binding domains.

How does F508del cause loss of CFTR function?

The CFTR variant F508del (in frame deletion of the phenylalanine residue at position 508 of the CFTR amino acid sequence) primarily causes CFTR dysfunction because it is missing from its correct cellular location, the apical membrane of epithelia lining ducts and tubes in the body. However, if F508del-CFTR reaches the plasma membrane two further defects are observed: defective channel gating and reduced plasma membrane stability.

DS discussed electrophysiology data his group had captured with colleagues at the University of Manchester to demonstrate the impact of the F508del-CFTR variant on channel gating and plasma membrane stability. They used the excised inside-out configuration of the patch-clamp technique and baby hamster kidney (BHK) cells stably expressing wild-type and F508del-CFTR. To deliver F508del-CFTR to the plasma membrane, they incubated BHK cells expressing the variant at 27 °C for 24 hours prior to study. To magnify the small size of CFTR channel openings, a large chloride concentration gradient was used and voltage was clamped at -50 mV. ATP and protein kinase A (PKA) were continuously present in the intracellular solution to activate and sustain CFTR channel activity. By studying CFTR channels at 37 °C, the impact of the F508del variant on channel rundown, a measure of the plasma membrane stability of CFTR was assessed.

F508del slows CFTR channel opening

Low temperature-rescued F508del-CFTR has a severe gating defect which greatly slows channel opening. As a result, the open probability (a measure of channel activity) of F508del-CFTR is greatly reduced compared to that of wild-type CFTR. Using prolonged channel recordings, DS demonstrated that at 37 °C F508del-CFTR is unstable and runs down within 10 minutes even in the continuous presence of PKA and ATP in the intracellular solution. He explained that the rundown of F508del-CFTR reflects not only changes in channel gating, but also current flow through the channel evident by openings to a sub-conductance state during rundown. DS emphasized that channel rundown makes studying the function of F508del-CFTR and its rescue by small molecules particularly challenging.

DS summarised that F508del-CFTR has multiple mechanisms of CFTR dysfunction including defective delivery of protein to the plasma membrane, perturbed channel gating and reduced protein stability at the plasma membrane. He emphasized that most CFTR variants that had been studied to date disrupt CFTR function in multiple ways. Very few variants, including the CFTR gating variant G551D, cause CFTR dysfunction by only a single defect.

Combinations of correctors and potentiators repair F508del-CFTR

To rescue F508del and other disease-causing CFTR variants, requires two types of CFTR-targeted therapies, correctors and potentiators. Correctors, such as Tezacaftor and Elexacaftor, allow misfolded CFTR variants to escape from the endoplasmic reticulum and traffic to the Golgi apparatus for maturation before delivery to the plasma membrane. By contrast, potentiators, such as Ivacaftor, enhance CFTR channel gating once the protein is phosphorylated by PKA. The combination therapy Elexacaftor-Tezacaftor-Ivacaftor is a CFTR-targeted therapy for most people with CF.

A novel CFTR potentiator – CP-628006

DS then spoke about the characterisation of a new efficacious CFTR potentiator developed by Pfizer, CP-628006 (referred to as CP). CP was identified by Pfizer following a high-throughput screen of a 150k compound library. It has a distinct chemical structure to known CFTR potentiators and efficaciously potentiated F508del- and G551D-CFTR in Fischer Rat Thyroid (FRT) epithelia heterologously expressing CFTR and human bronchial epithelia from individuals with CF and the genotypes F508del/F508del and F508del/G551D.

Using single-channel recording, CP was shown to have reduced potency, but similar efficacy to Ivacaftor, enhancing channel activity by increasing the frequency and duration of channel openings. Interestingly, CP restored wild-type CFTR levels of channel activity to F508del-CFTR, but not G551D-CFTR.

To learn about how CP enhances CFTR activity, the group at Pfizer/ University of Bristol examined the ATP-dependence of channel gating for WT-CFTR, F508del-CFTR and G551D-CFTR in the absence and presence of either CP or Ivacaftor. For F508del-CFTR, channel activity was weakly ATP-dependent. Both potentiators restored some ATP-dependent channel gating to F508del-CFTR. In the case of G551D-CFTR, channel gating was ATP-independent. Ivacaftor potentiated G551D-CFTR activity similarly at all ATP concentrations tested, demonstrating that it enhances ATP-independent channel gating of G551D-CFTR. By contrast, potentiation of G551D-CFTR by CP was ATP-dependent. This result indicates that CP restores some ATP-dependence to G551D-CFTR.

The distinct effects of CP compared to Ivacaftor suggest a different mechanism of action. This encouraged the group to test combinations of the two potentiators. They found that CP and Ivacaftor together enhanced the channel activity of G551D-CFTR but not that of F508del-CFTR. DS explained that studies by other investigators have also demonstrated that some CFTR variants are receptive to combinations of two potentiators, whereas others are not.  DS speculated that greater clinical benefit might be achieved by combinations of CFTR potentiators.

Recent Developments

CFTR-targeted therapies have transformed the treatment of CF. Around 90% of people with CF will likely benefit from Elexacaftor-Tezacaftor-Ivacaftor combination therapy. However, DS emphasized that there is still much research to be done. An urgent priority is to develop drug therapies for the last 10% of individuals with CF who have CFTR variants unresponsive to current CFTR-targeted therapies. Ultimately, the aim is to cure CF.

Read Next: Adam’s Journey into Electrophysiology

Adam’s Journey into Electrophysiology

Written by Adam Young

My undergraduate qualifications

I completed my undergraduate degree with a BSc in Natural Sciences at the University of Bath in Summer 2021. I chose to major in pharmacology and minor in biology which was an excellent way to explore a breadth of different subjects, whilst also providing a depth of scientific understanding.

I particularly enjoyed studying various neuroscience units and learning about the intricate mechanisms underlying the physiological processes in the brain. I also developed an interest in the ways in which the brain can malfunction and how this can lead to a range of neurological diseases.

Adam Young
Adam Young, Metrion Biosciences

A placement at the Barrow Neurological Institute

During the third year of my degree, I was fortunate enough to be able to complete a placement year at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, where I joined the Whitaker-Lukas lab. I investigated the effects of the modulatory prototoxin, lynx1, on a subtype of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors as part of a project studying nicotine addiction. Through the year, I developed the technique of two-electrode voltage-clamp electrophysiology and thoroughly enjoyed this process! Not only did this experience expand my molecular biology skillset at the bench, but it also helped me to develop an appreciation for the elaborate nature of ion channel function within the brain. It was also an incredible opportunity to live in and explore another part of the world, and I am still very grateful for the experience!

My work so far at Metrion Biosciences

After completing my placement, I was particularly intrigued by the clinical potential of ion channels, particularly in neurological disorders. After graduating, I knew I wanted to continue to develop my knowledge of ion channels – as well as expand my abilities at the bench. I recently joined Metrion Biosciences exactly for these reasons and I am grateful for the opportunity to develop skills within manual and automated patch clamp electrophysiology. There are many fascinating ongoing drug development projects, and I am enjoying the challenge of making recordings from various ion channels. I look forward to continuing to develop within this role and contribute to various projects across the company.

Read Next: Stephen Tucker presents at Metrion Webinar Series

Dr Stephen Tucker presents at Metrion’s webinar series

Written by Dr Sophie Rose and Dr John Ridley

The second instalment in the ‘Ion Channels in Drug Discovery’ webinar series was presented by Professor Stephen Tucker from the Department of Physics, University of Oxford. Stephen delivered a presentation titled:

“Defective X-gating caused by de novo mutations in the TASK-1 K2P channel (KCNK3) underlies a developmental disorder with sleep apnoea”.

The work presented by Stephen is available as a pre-print in MedRxiv. The work was supported by Bayer who provided the TASK-1 blockers which were used in the study and are currently being advanced through clinical trials.

The origin of leak conductance

Stephen has spent much of his career working on the two-pore domain (K2P) and inward rectifier (Kir) families of potassium channels. K2P channels produce background leak currents that contribute to regulating the resting membrane potential. The first reported mammalian K2P channel, TWIK-1 (Tandem of pore domains in Weak Inward rectifying K+ channel 1, often referred to as KCNK1 or K2P1) was identified over 25 years ago and is now known to be one of 15 members in the human genome. These channels can be highly regulatable and finely tuneable; many exhibit polymodal regulation by diverse stimuli and cell signalling pathways, including GPCRs.

When K2P channels go wrong

K2P channels are expressed in a wide range of different tissue types where they have important roles in controlling physiological processes. Therefore, it is not surprising that variants that affect the function of K2P channels can result in a wide variety of disorders, which range from migraine to pulmonary arterial hypertension. The membrane topology of K2P channels differs significantly from ‘classical’ potassium channels, as each K2P channel subunit contains two pore forming domains and functional channels are composed of two subunits.

Disease causing mutations within the TASK channel family

TASK channels are a subset of the K2P channel family, which are expressed in many excitable and non-excitable tissues, including the pancreas, brain, lung, heart and kidney. Loss-of-function mutations in TASK-3 (KCNK9) can lead to a condition known as Birk Barel syndrome, an inherited condition characterised by intellectual disability, hyperactivity and unusual facial features. Most cases result from a mutation in the M4 helix, which produces almost complete loss-of-function. The condition demonstrates dominant inheritance with paternal imprinting. Furthermore, loss-of-function mutations in TASK-1 (KCNK3), (either homo- or heterozygous) have been linked to the pathophysiology of pulmonary arterial hypertension; a rare, progressive disorder.

What is the link with sleep apnoea?

TASK-1 (KCNK3) is also implicated in sleep apnoea, which is a disorder where breathing repeatedly stops during sleep. Sleep apnoea affects up to a billion people worldwide. and there are two main types:

  • Central which is caused by defective circuits that control beathing;
  • Obstructive which is caused by a physical obstruction of the airways.

TASK-1 channels are expressed in the chemosensitive regions of the brain that are involved in the control of breathing. Research showing the involvement of TASK-1 in sleep apnoea led Bayer to develop highly potent, highly selective inhibitors of TASK-1 channels that are currently in clinical development (phase 2).

A new channelopathy associated with TASK-1 (KCNK3)

The link between sleep apnoea and TASK-1 came from a recent publication based on the results of a large study of 31,000 parent-offspring trios. During the study, 28 novel genes were identified, including KCNK3 (TASK-1), that were associated with neurodevelopmental disorders such as developmental delay. A total of 9 probands, each heterozygous for one of six separate de novo missense mutations in KCNK3 were identified. Patients shared a common phenotype consisting of developmental delay with various limb abnormalities. Additionally, they also suffered from sleep apnoea that necessitated the use of nocturnal oxygen. The authors of the study termed the disorder, Developmental Delay with Sleep Apnoea (DDSA). Due to his expertise with TASK-1 channels, Stephen was contacted by the study leader to help characterise the mutant TASK-1 channels.  

Obtaining structural information about the TASK1 channel

Stephen explained how his team obtained crystal structures of the TASK-1 channel (published in Nature in 2020). Interestingly, they identified that TASK-1 contains a lower gate, which they designated as an ‘X-gate’, which is created by interaction of the two crossed C-terminal M4 transmembrane helices at the vestibule entrance. This region is known as the halothane response element (HRE) and is important for TASK channel gating. The structures were co-crystalised with the Bayer inhibitors and the drug binding site was found to sit just below the selectivity filter. The six most prevalent mutations identified in DDSA are clustered around the X-gate.

Mutations cluster around the X gate 2
Figure 1 – Mutations cluster around the X-gate

Probing the functional characteristics of the channel using electrophysiology

Using the voltage clamp technique, it was observed that the mutant TASK-1 channels displayed a prominent gain-of-function phenotype, where dramatic increases in current amplitude were identified. The gain in function occurred irrespective of whether one or both of the channel subunits contained a mutation.

Single channel recordings performed from channels expressed in Xenopus oocytes, demonstrated a higher open probability for the TASK-1 mutants. N133S (TM2 mutation) and L239P (M4 mutation), were associated with a ten-fold increase in single channel open probability, but with no change in conductance. These mutations appear to be involved in interfering with interactions that stabilise the X-gate in its closed state. For example, N133 generates a backbone hydrogen bond with the M4 helix. When this residue was mutated, the H bond was disrupted, which led to a gain-in-channel function.. The group confirmed this result using a molecular dynamics simulation of the TASK-1 structure; wild type versus N133S and L239P. The two mutations were found to promote opening of the X-gate.

What regulates the X-gate?

Previous studies which were performed almost 20 years ago, showed that mutating the X-gate renders TASK-1 resistant to GPCR mediated inhibition. Interestingly, all of the TASK-1 mutants associated with DDSA were resistant to GPCR inhibition, which may underlie what is happening with the L239P mutation. It was also found that the mutant channel, N133S, is not inhibited by either diacylglycerol or anandamide.

Can the mutant channels still be pharmacologically modulated?

A critical question regarding the mutant TASK-1 channels associated with DDSA, is whether they can be modulated by inhibitors of wildtype TASK-1. Bayer’s TASK-1 blocker, BAY 2253651, which is being developed for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnoea, inhibits TASK-1 with a sub nanomolar IC50. Fortunately, electrophysiological assessments identified that the mutations associated with DDSA are still sensitive to BAY 2253651; the compound is capable of significantly inhibiting the mutant channels.

Possible genotype/phenotype correlation

Mutations located in the M4 region produce the smallest increase in whole cell current amplitudes; patients with mutations in the M4 region presented with less severe phenotypes in general, exhibiting fewer limb abnormalities and less severe developmental delay. It will become clearer, with further research, whether this observation is consistent with other mutations that are identified in the M4 region. However, further work is required to further characterise the mutant channels, as these experiments were performed using Xenopus oocytes, rather than mammalian cells, and do not take into account factors such as hetero-multimerization with TASK-3 or coupling to different GPCRs.


  • Wild type TASK-1 channels or heteromeric TASK-1/ TASK-3 channels cause hyperpolarization of the cell and play an important contribution in controlling the resting membrane potential.
  • GPCR stimulation results in inhibition of these channels, which may lead to depolarization of the resting membrane potential.
  • Gain-of-function TASK-1 mutations have been identified in patients with DDSA.
  • The gain-of-function phenotype is caused by a defective X-gate, which also renders the channels resistant to GPCR induced inhibition.
  • Fortunately, the mutant channels can be modulated by inhibitors of wild type TASK-1 channels. Therefore, there is a potential opportunity to treat younger patients.
  • Importantly, the results generated in Stephen’s lab strengthen the link between overactive or dysregulated TASK-1 channels and sleep apnoea.

It will be very interesting to see the final outcome of the Bayer clinical trials.

Druggability of DDSA mutants
Figure 2 – A summary of the druggability of DDSA mutants by BAY1000493, Bayer’s TASK-2 blocker

Read Next: Pete’s Path into Electrophysiology

Alex’s Story So Far…

Written by Dr Alex Howarth

Metrion Scientist Dr Alexander Howarth summarises below his undergraduate and postgraduate studies and how he came to join Metrion Biosciences.

Alex snip
Dr Alex Howarth, Metrion Biosciences

“In 2015, I graduated from the University of Sheffield with a BSc in Biomedical Sciences. The degree was fascinating and provided an in-depth insight into human biology, from endocrinology to neuroscience, immunology to cancer biology, and even human dissection! I was fairly certain on wanting to explore research from early on in my degree. I completed a research placement in the Summer of 2014 within the department investigating the role of purinergic signalling in mast cell chemotaxis, which reassured my aspirations to proceed with a career in research.

My next dilemma was deciding which field or area of research to pursue. I was most interested in neuroscience and cancer biology, as well as learning as many techniques as I could manage. Eventually, I successfully applied for a BBSRC-funded PhD in the Brackenbury lab at the University of York, researching the role of voltage-gated sodium channel function and regulation in breast cancer cells. I employed a range of techniques to investigate the sodium channel β1 subunit, specifically, including fluorescence imaging, biochemistry and above all, patch clamp electrophysiology.

I employed a range of techniques to investigate the sodium channel β1 subunit, specifically, including fluorescence imaging, biochemistry and above all, patch clamp electrophysiology.

Metrion Biosciences

I graduated in 2020 after presenting at multiple conferences and publishing a first author article and was faced with the scary prospect of finding my first full time job, compounded by the pandemonium of the COVID pandemic. I wanted to utilise the skills that I had learnt during my PhD to find a stable job in research. I came across the advert for an electrophysiologist position at Metrion Biosciences, which promised a meaningful, industrial application for my electrophysiology skills alongside continual personal development, and instantly applied.

I started in November 2020 and have been enjoying the job ever since!” 

Read Next: Pete’s Path into Electrophysiology