The voltage-activated sodium (Nav) channel Nav1.9 is expressed in dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons where it is believed to play an important role in nociception. Progress in revealing the functional properties and pharmacological sensitivities of this non-canonical Nav channel has been slow because attempts to express this channel in a heterologous expression system have been unsuccessful. Here, we use a protein engineering approach to dissect the contributions of the four Nav1.9 voltage sensors to channel function and pharmacology. We define individual S3b-S4 paddle motifs within each voltage sensor, and show that they can sense changes in membrane voltage and drive voltage sensor activation when transplanted into voltage-activated potassium channels. We also find that the paddle motifs in Nav1.9 are targeted by animal toxins, and that these toxins alter Nav1.9-mediated currents in DRG neurons. Our results demonstrate that slowly activating and inactivating Nav1.9 channels have functional and pharmacological properties in common with canonical Nav channels, but also show distinctive pharmacological sensitivities that can potentially be exploited for developing novel treatments for pain.
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