Gastrointestinal (GI) functional and motility disorders are highly prevalent and responsible for long-term morbidity and sometimes mortality in the affected patients. It is estimated that one in three persons has a GI functional or motility disorder. However, diagnosis and treatment of these widespread conditions remains challenging. This partly stems from the multisystem pathophysiology, including processing abnormalities in the central and peripheral (enteric) nervous systems and motor dysfunction in the GI wall. Interstitial cells of Cajal (ICCs) are central to the generation and propagation of the cyclical electrical activity and smooth muscle cells (SMCs) are responsible for electromechanical coupling. In these and other excitable cells voltage-sensitive ion channels (VSICs) are the main molecular units that generate and regulate electrical activity. Thus, VSICs are potential targets for intervention in GI motility disorders. Research in this area has flourished with advances in the experimental methods in molecular and structural biology and electrophysiology. However, our understanding of the molecular mechanisms responsible for the complex and variable electrical behavior of ICCs and SMCs remains incomplete. In this review, we focus on the slow waves and action potentials in ICCs and SMCs. We describe the constituent VSICs, which include voltage-gated sodium (Na(V)), calcium (Ca(V)), potassium (K(V), K(Ca)), chloride (Cl(-)) and nonselective ion channels (transient receptor potentials [TRPs]). VSICs have significant structural homology and common functional mechanisms. We outline the approaches and limitations and provide examples of targeting VSICs at the pores, voltage sensors and alternatively spliced sites. Rational drug design can come from an integrated view of the structure and mechanisms of gating and activation by voltage or mechanical stress.
Keywords: GI motility; calcium voltage gated ion channel; chloride channel; functional GI; ion channel; potassium voltage gated ion channel; sodium voltage gated ion channel; voltage gated ion channel.