Voltage-gated sodium channels are encoded by a family of ten structurally-related genes that are expressed in spatially and temporally distinct patterns, mainly in excitable tissues. They underlie electrical signalling in nerve and muscle. It has long been known that sodium channel blockers are anaesthetics as well as powerful analgesics when delivered at low concentrations. In addition, cardiac arrhythmias and epileptic activity can be treated with sodium channel blockers. As we have learned more about the sub-types of sodium channels and their distribution, new therapeutic opportunities have suggested themselves. There are indications that sodium channel blockers may also be useful in affective disorders and schizophrenia. The production of tissue-specific and eventually inducible knock out mice as well as genetic studies has proved useful in understanding the specialised role of individual types of sodium channels. The development of sub-type specific blockers has proved slower than anticipated, although the properties of naturally occurring toxin blockers suggest that subtype-specific blockers of sodium channels could be very useful clinically in the treatment of pain.
Molecular Nociception Group, Biology UCL, Gower Street, London WC1 E 6BT.