Botulinum neurotoxins (BoNTs) are exceedingly potent neurological poisons that block cholinergic release in the peripheral nervous system and cause death by asphyxiation. While post-exposure prophylaxis can effectively eliminate toxin in the bloodstream, there are no clinically effective treatments to prevent or reverse disease once BoNT has entered the neuron. To address the need for post-symptomatic countermeasures, we designed and developed an in vitro assay based on whole-cell, patch-clamp electrophysiological monitoring of miniature excitatory post-synaptic currents in synaptically active murine embryonic stem cell-derived neurons. This synaptic function-based assay was used to assess the efficacy of rationally selected drugs to restore neurotransmission in neurons comprehensively intoxicated by BoNT/A. Based on clinical reports suggesting that elevated Ca2+ signaling promotes symptomatic relief from botulism, we identified seven candidate drugs that modulate presynaptic Ca2+ signaling and assessed their ability to reverse BoNT/A-induced synaptic blockade. The most effective drugs from the screen were found to phasically agonize voltage-gated calcium channel (VGCC) activity. Lead candidates were then applied to ex vivo studies in BoNT/A-paralyzing mouse phrenic nerve-hemidiaphragm (PND) preparations. Treatment of PNDs with VGCC agonists after paralytic onset transiently potentiated nerve-elicited muscle contraction and delayed progression to neuromuscular failure. Collectively, this study suggests that Ca2+-modulating drugs represent a novel symptomatic treatment for neuromuscular paralysis following BoNT/A poisoning.
- Botulinum neurotoxin
- Phrenic nerve
- Stem cell-derived neurons
- Voltage-gated calcium channels