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Robin S B Williams - Top 30 Publications

Mechanisms of action for the medium-chain triglyceride ketogenic diet in neurological and metabolic disorders.

High-fat, low-carbohydrate diets, known as ketogenic diets, have been used as a non-pharmacological treatment for refractory epilepsy. A key mechanism of this treatment is thought to be the generation of ketones, which provide brain cells (neurons and astrocytes) with an energy source that is more efficient than glucose, resulting in beneficial downstream metabolic changes, such as increasing adenosine levels, which might have effects on seizure control. However, some studies have challenged the central role of ketones because medium-chain fatty acids, which are part of a commonly used variation of the diet (the medium-chain triglyceride ketogenic diet), have been shown to directly inhibit AMPA receptors (glutamate receptors), and to change cell energetics through mitochondrial biogenesis. Through these mechanisms, medium-chain fatty acids rather than ketones are likely to block seizure onset and raise seizure threshold. The mechanisms underlying the ketogenic diet might also have roles in other disorders, such as preventing neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's disease, the proliferation and spread of cancer, and insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes. Analysing medium-chain fatty acids in future ketogenic diet studies will provide further insights into their importance in modified forms of the diet. Moreover, the results of these studies could facilitate the development of new pharmacological and dietary therapies for epilepsy and other disorders.

Valproic acid and its congener propylisopropylacetic acid reduced the amount of soluble amyloid-β oligomers released from 7PA2 cells.

The amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer's disease suggests that synaptic degeneration and pathology is caused by the accumulation of amyloid-β (Aβ) peptides derived from the amyloid precursor protein (APP). Subsequently, soluble Aβ oligomers cause the loss of synaptic proteins from neurons, a histopathological feature of Alzheimer's disease that correlates with the degree of dementia. In this study, the production of toxic forms of Aβ was examined in vitro using 7PA2 cells stably transfected with human APP. We show that conditioned media from 7PA2 cells containing Aβ oligomers caused synapse degeneration as measured by the loss of synaptic proteins, including synaptophysin and cysteine-string protein, from cultured neurons. Critically, conditioned media from 7PA2 cells treated with valproic acid (2-propylpentanoic acid (VPA)) or propylisopropylacetic acid (PIA) did not cause synapse damage. Treatment with VPA or PIA did not significantly affect total Aβ42 concentrations; rather these drugs selectively reduced the concentrations of Aβ42 oligomers in conditioned media. In contrast, treatment significantly increased the concentrations of Aβ42 monomers in conditioned media. VPA or PIA treatment reduced the concentrations of APP within lipid rafts, membrane compartments associated with Aβ production. These effects of VPA and PIA were reversed by the addition of platelet-activating factor, a bioactive phospholipid produced following activation of phospholipase A2, an enzyme sensitive to VPA and PIA. Collectively these data suggest that VPA and PIA reduce Aβ oligomers through inhibition of phospholipase A2 and suggest a novel therapeutic approach to Alzheimer's treatment.

Synapsin I phosphorylation is dysregulated by beta-amyloid oligomers and restored by valproic acid.

Alzheimer's disease is the most prevalent form of dementia in the elderly but the precise causal mechanisms are still not fully understood. Growing evidence supports a significant role for Aβ42 oligomers in the development and progression of Alzheimer's. For example, intracellular soluble Aβ oligomers are thought to contribute to the early synaptic dysfunction associated with Alzheimer's disease, but the molecular mechanisms underlying this effect are still unclear. Here, we identify a novel mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the reported synaptic dysfunction. Using primary rat hippocampal neurons exposed for a short period of time to Aβ42 oligomers, we show a disruption in the activity-dependent phosphorylation cycle of SynapsinI at Ser9. SynapsinI is a pre-synaptic protein that responds to neuronal activity and regulates the availability of synaptic vesicles to participate in neurotransmitter release. Phosphorylation of SynapsinI at Ser9, modulates its distribution and interaction with synaptic vesicles. Our results show that in neurons exposed to Aβ42 oligomers, the levels of phosphorylated Ser9 of SynapsinI remain elevated during the recovery period following neuronal activity. We then investigated if this effect could be targeted by a putative therapeutic regime using valproic acid (a short branch-chained fatty acid) that has been proposed as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Exposure of Aβ42 treated neurons to valproic acid, showed that it restores the physiological regulation of SynapsinI after depolarisation. Our data provide a new insight on Aβ42-mediated pathology in Alzheimer's disease and supports the use of Valproic acid as a possible pharmaceutical intervention for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Tipping the scales: Lessons from simple model systems on inositol imbalance in neurological disorders.

Inositol and inositol-containing compounds have signalling and regulatory roles in many cellular processes, suggesting that inositol imbalance may lead to wide-ranging changes in cellular functions. Indeed, changes in inositol-dependent signalling have been implicated in various diseases and cellular functions such as autophagy, and these changes have often been proposed as therapeutic targets. However, few studies have highlighted the links between inositol depletion and the downstream effects on inositol phosphates and phosphoinositides in disease states. For this research, many advances have employed simple model systems that include the social amoeba D. discoideum and the yeast S. cerevisiae, since these models enable a range of experimental approaches that are not possible in mammalian models. In this review, we discuss recent findings initiated in simple model systems and translated to higher model organisms where the effect of altered inositol, inositol phosphate and phosphoinositide levels impact on bipolar disorder, Alzheimer disease, epilepsy and autophagy.

Alzheimer disease research in the 21st century: past and current failures, new perspectives and funding priorities.

Much of Alzheimer disease (AD) research has been traditionally based on the use of animals, which have been extensively applied in an effort to both improve our understanding of the pathophysiological mechanisms of the disease and to test novel therapeutic approaches. However, decades of such research have not effectively translated into substantial therapeutic success for human patients. Here we critically discuss these issues in order to determine how existing human-based methods can be applied to study AD pathology and develop novel therapeutics. These methods, which include patient-derived cells, computational analysis and models, together with large-scale epidemiological studies represent novel and exciting tools to enhance and forward AD research. In particular, these methods are helping advance AD research by contributing multifactorial and multidimensional perspectives, especially considering the crucial role played by lifestyle risk factors in the determination of AD risk. In addition to research techniques, we also consider related pitfalls and flaws in the current research funding system. Conversely, we identify encouraging new trends in research and government policy. In light of these new research directions, we provide recommendations regarding prioritization of research funding. The goal of this document is to stimulate scientific and public discussion on the need to explore new avenues in AD research, considering outcome and ethics as core principles to reliably judge traditional research efforts and eventually undertake new research strategies.

Nutrition for the ageing brain: Towards evidence for an optimal diet.

As people age they become increasingly susceptible to chronic and extremely debilitating brain diseases. The precise cause of the neuronal degeneration underlying these disorders, and indeed normal brain ageing remains however elusive. Considering the limits of existing preventive methods, there is a desire to develop effective and safe strategies. Growing preclinical and clinical research in healthy individuals or at the early stage of cognitive decline has demonstrated the beneficial impact of nutrition on cognitive functions. The present review is the most recent in a series produced by the Nutrition and Mental Performance Task Force under the auspice of the International Life Sciences Institute Europe (ILSI Europe). The latest scientific advances specific to how dietary nutrients and non-nutrient may affect cognitive ageing are presented. Furthermore, several key points related to mechanisms contributing to brain ageing, pathological conditions affecting brain function, and brain biomarkers are also discussed. Overall, findings are inconsistent and fragmented and more research is warranted to determine the underlying mechanisms and to establish dose-response relationships for optimal brain maintenance in different population subgroups. Such approaches are likely to provide the necessary evidence to develop research portfolios that will inform about new dietary recommendations on how to prevent cognitive decline.

Employing Dictyostelium as an Advantageous 3Rs Model for Pharmacogenetic Research.

Increasing concern regarding the use of animals in research has triggered a growing need for non-animal research models in a range of fields. The development of 3Rs (replacement, refinement, and reduction) approaches in research, to reduce the reliance on the use of animal tissue and whole-animal experiments, has recently included the use of Dictyostelium. In addition to not feeling pain and thus being relatively free of ethical constraints, Dictyostelium provides a range of distinct methodological advantages for researchers that has led to a number of breakthroughs. These methodologies include using cell behavior (cell movement and shape) as a rapid indicator of sensitivity to poorly characterized medicines, natural products, and other chemicals to help understand the molecular mechanism of action of compounds. Here, we outline a general approach to employing Dictyostelium as a 3Rs research model, using cell behavior as a readout to better understand how compounds, such as the active ingredient in chilli peppers, capsaicin, function at a cellular level. This chapter helps scientists unfamiliar with Dictyostelium to rapidly employ it as an advantageous model system for research, to reduce the use of animals in research, and to make paradigm shift advances in our understanding of biological chemistry.

Non-Catalytic Roles of Presenilin Throughout Evolution.

Research into Alzheimer's disease pathology and treatment has often focused on presenilin proteins. These proteins provide the key catalytic activity of the γ-secretase complex in the cleavage of amyloid-β precursor protein and resultant amyloid tangle deposition. Over the last 25 years, screening novel drugs to control this aberrant proteolytic activity has yet to identify effective treatments for the disease. In the search for other mechanisms of presenilin pathology, several studies have demonstrated that mammalian presenilin proteins also act in a non-proteolytic role as a scaffold to co-localize key signaling proteins. This role is likely to represent an ancestral presenilin function, as it has been described in genetically distant species including non-mammalian animals, plants, and a simple eukaryotic amoeba Dictyostelium that diverged from the human lineage over a billion years ago. Here, we review the non-catalytic scaffold role of presenilin, from mammalian models to other biomedical models, and include recent insights using Dictyostelium, to suggest that this role may provide an early evolutionary function of presenilin proteins.

The Inositol-3-Phosphate Synthase Biosynthetic Enzyme Has Distinct Catalytic and Metabolic Roles.

Inositol levels, maintained by the biosynthetic enzyme inositol-3-phosphate synthase (Ino1), are altered in a range of disorders, including bipolar disorder and Alzheimer's disease. To date, most inositol studies have focused on the molecular and cellular effects of inositol depletion without considering Ino1 levels. Here we employ a simple eukaryote, Dictyostelium discoideum, to demonstrate distinct effects of loss of Ino1 and inositol depletion. We show that loss of Ino1 results in an inositol auxotrophy that can be rescued only partially by exogenous inositol. Removal of inositol supplementation from the ino1(-) mutant resulted in a rapid 56% reduction in inositol levels, triggering the induction of autophagy, reduced cytokinesis, and substrate adhesion. Inositol depletion also caused a dramatic generalized decrease in phosphoinositide levels that was rescued by inositol supplementation. However, loss of Ino1 triggered broad metabolic changes consistent with the induction of a catabolic state that was not rescued by inositol supplementation. These data suggest a metabolic role for Ino1 that is independent of inositol biosynthesis. To characterize this role, an Ino1 binding partner containing SEL1L1 domains (Q54IX5) and having homology to mammalian macromolecular complex adaptor proteins was identified. Our findings therefore identify a new role for Ino1, independent of inositol biosynthesis, with broad effects on cell metabolism.

Bitter tastant responses in the amoeba Dictyostelium correlate with rat and human taste assays.

Treatment compliance is reduced when pharmaceutical compounds have a bitter taste and this is particularly marked for paediatric medications. Identification of bitter taste liability during drug discovery utilises the rat in vivo brief access taste aversion (BATA) test which apart from animal use is time consuming with limited throughput. We investigated the suitability of using a simple, non-animal model, the amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum to investigate taste-related responses and particularly identification of compounds with a bitter taste liability. The effect of taste-related compounds on Dictyostelium behaviour following acute exposure (15 minutes) was monitored. Dictyostelium did not respond to salty, sour, umami or sweet tasting compounds, however, cells rapidly responded to bitter tastants. Using time-lapse photography and computer-generated quantification to monitor changes in cell membrane movement, we developed an assay to assess the response of Dictyostelium to a wide range of structurally diverse known bitter compounds and blinded compounds. Dictyostelium showed varying responses to the bitter tastants, with IC50 values providing a rank order of potency. Comparison of Dictyostelium IC50 values to those observed in response to a similar range of compounds in the rat in vivo brief access taste aversion test showed a significant (p = 0.0172) positive correlation between the two models, and additionally a similar response to that provided by a human sensory panel assessment test. These experiments demonstrate that Dictyostelium may provide a suitable model for early prediction of bitterness for novel tastants and drugs. Interestingly, a response to bitter tastants appears conserved from single-celled amoebae to humans.

Seizure control by decanoic acid through direct AMPA receptor inhibition.

The medium chain triglyceride ketogenic diet is an established treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy that increases plasma levels of decanoic acid and ketones. Recently, decanoic acid has been shown to provide seizure control in vivo, yet its mechanism of action remains unclear. Here we show that decanoic acid, but not the ketones β-hydroxybutryate or acetone, shows antiseizure activity in two acute ex vivo rat hippocampal slice models of epileptiform activity. To search for a mechanism of decanoic acid, we show it has a strong inhibitory effect on excitatory, but not inhibitory, neurotransmission in hippocampal slices. Using heterologous expression of excitatory ionotropic glutamate receptor AMPA subunits in Xenopus oocytes, we show that this effect is through direct AMPA receptor inhibition, a target shared by a recently introduced epilepsy treatment perampanel. Decanoic acid acts as a non-competitive antagonist at therapeutically relevant concentrations, in a voltage- and subunit-dependent manner, and this is sufficient to explain its antiseizure effects. This inhibitory effect is likely to be caused by binding to sites on the M3 helix of the AMPA-GluA2 transmembrane domain; independent from the binding site of perampanel. Together our results indicate that the direct inhibition of excitatory neurotransmission by decanoic acid in the brain contributes to the anti-convulsant effect of the medium chain triglyceride ketogenic diet.

Valproic acid protects against haemorrhagic shock-induced signalling changes via PPARγ activation in an in vitro model.

Valproic acid (VPA), a widely used epilepsy and bipolar disorder treatment, provides acute protection against haemorrhagic shock-induced mortality in a range of in vivo models through an unknown mechanism. In the liver, this effect occurs with a concomitant protection against a decrease in GSK3β-Ser(9) phosphorylation. Here, we developed an in vitro model to investigate this protective effect of VPA and define a molecular mechanism.

New experimental therapies for status epilepticus in preclinical development.

Starting with the established antiepileptic drug, valproic acid, we have taken a novel approach to develop new antiseizure drugs that may be effective in status epilepticus. We first identified that valproic acid has a potent effect on a biochemical pathway, the phosphoinositide pathway, in Dictyostelium discoideum, and we demonstrated that this may relate to its mechanism of action against seizures in mammalian systems. Through screening in this pathway, we have identified a large array of fatty acids and fatty acid derivatives with antiseizure potential. These were then evaluated in an in vitro mammalian system. One compound that we identified through this process is a major constituent of the ketogenic diet, strongly arguing that it may be the fatty acids that are mediating the antiseizure effect of this diet. We further tested two of the more potent compounds in an in vivo model of status epilepticus and demonstrated that they were more effective than valproic acid in treating the status epilepticus. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled "Status Epilepticus".

An in vitro model for synaptic loss in neurodegenerative diseases suggests a neuroprotective role for valproic acid via inhibition of cPLA2 dependent signalling.

Many neurodegenerative diseases present the loss of synapses as a common pathological feature. Here we have employed an in vitro model for synaptic loss to investigate the molecular mechanism of a therapeutic treatment, valproic acid (VPA). We show that amyloid-β (Aβ), isolated from patient tissue and thought to be the causative agent of Alzheimer's disease, caused the loss of synaptic proteins including synaptophysin, synapsin-1 and cysteine-string protein from cultured mouse neurons. Aβ-induced synapse damage was reduced by pre-treatment with physiologically relevant concentrations of VPA (10 μM) and a structural variant propylisopropylacetic acid (PIA). These drugs also reduced synaptic damage induced by other neurodegenerative-associated proteins α-synuclein, linked to Lewy body dementia and Parkinson's disease, and the prion-derived peptide PrP82-146. Consistent with these effects, synaptic vesicle recycling was also inhibited by these proteins and protected by VPA and PIA. We show a mechanism for this damage through aberrant activation of cytoplasmic phospholipase A2 (cPLA2) that is reduced by both drugs. Furthermore, Aβ-dependent cPLA2 activation correlates with its accumulation in lipid rafts, and is likely to be caused by elevated cholesterol (stabilising rafts) and decreased cholesterol ester levels, and this mechanism is reduced by VPA and PIA. Such observations suggest that VPA and PIA may provide protection against synaptic damage that occurs during Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and prion diseases.

Epilepsy research methods update: Understanding the causes of epileptic seizures and identifying new treatments using non-mammalian model organisms.

This narrative review is intended to introduce clinicians treating epilepsy and researchers familiar with mammalian models of epilepsy to experimentally tractable, non-mammalian research models used in epilepsy research, ranging from unicellular eukaryotes to more complex multicellular organisms. The review focuses on four model organisms: the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and the zebrafish Danio rerio. We consider recent discoveries made with each model organism and discuss the importance of these advances for the understanding and treatment of epilepsy in humans. The relative ease with which mutations in genes of interest can be produced and studied quickly and cheaply in these organisms, together with their anatomical and physiological simplicity in comparison to mammalian species, are major advantages when researchers are trying to unravel complex disease mechanisms. The short generation times of most of these model organisms also mean that they lend themselves particularly conveniently to the investigation of drug effects or epileptogenic processes across the lifecourse.

Seizure control by derivatives of medium chain fatty acids associated with the ketogenic diet show novel branching-point structure for enhanced potency.

The medium chain triglyceride (MCT) ketogenic diet is a major treatment of drug-resistant epilepsy but is problematic, particularly in adults, because of poor tolerability. Branched derivatives of octanoic acid (OA), a medium chain fat provided in the diet have been suggested as potential new treatments for drug-resistant epilepsy, but the structural basis of this functionality has not been determined. Here we investigate structural variants of branched medium chain fatty acids as new seizure-control treatments. We initially employ a series of methyl-branched OA derivatives, and using the GABAA receptor antagonist pentylenetetrazol to induce seizure-like activity in rat hippocampal slices, we show a strong, branch-point-specific activity that improves upon the related epilepsy treatment valproic acid. Using low magnesium conditions to induce glutamate excitotoxicity in rat primary hippocampal neuronal cultures for the assessment of neuroprotection, we also show a structural dependence identical to that for seizure control, suggesting a related mechanism of action for these compounds in both seizure control and neuroprotection. In contrast, the effect of these compounds on histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibition, associated with teratogenicity, shows no correlation with therapeutic efficacy. Furthermore, small structural modifications of the starting compounds provide active compounds without HDAC inhibitory effects. Finally, using multiple in vivo seizure models, we identify potent lead candidates for the treatment of epilepsy. This study therefore identifies a novel family of fatty acids, related to the MCT ketogenic diet, that show promise as new treatments for epilepsy control and possibly other MCT ketogenic diet-responding conditions, such as Alzheimer disease.

An ancestral non-proteolytic role for presenilin proteins in multicellular development of the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum.

Mutations in either of two presenilin genes can cause familial Alzheimer's disease. Presenilins have both proteolysis-dependent functions, as components of the γ-secretase complex, and proteolysis-independent functions in signalling. In this study, we investigate a conserved function of human presenilins in the development of the simple model organism Dictyostelium discoideum. We show that the block in Dictyostelium development caused by the ablation of both Dictyostelium presenilins is rescued by the expression of human presenilin 1, restoring the terminal differentiation of multiple cell types. This developmental role is independent of proteolytic activity, because the mutation of both catalytic aspartates does not affect presenilin ability to rescue development, and the ablation of nicastrin, a γ-secretase component that is crucial for proteolytic activity, does not block development. The role of presenilins during Dictyostelium development is therefore independent of their proteolytic activity. However, presenilin loss in Dictyostelium results in elevated cyclic AMP (cAMP) levels and enhanced stimulation-induced calcium release, suggesting that presenilins regulate these intracellular signalling pathways. Our data suggest that presenilin proteins perform an ancient non-proteolytic role in regulating intracellular signalling and development, and that Dictyostelium is a useful model for analysing human presenilin function.

The search for better epilepsy treatments: from slime mould to coconuts.

Drug-resistant epilepsy has remained a problem since the inception of antiepileptic drug development, despite the large variety of antiepileptic drugs available today. Moreover, the mechanism-of-action of these drugs is often unknown. This is due to the widespread screening of compounds through animal models. We have taken a different approach to antiepileptic drug discovery and have identified a biochemical pathway in Dictyostelium discoideum (a 'slime mould') that may relate to the mechanism-of-action of valproate, one of the most commonly used and effective antiepileptic drugs. Through screening in this pathway, we have been able to identify a whole host of fatty acids and fatty acid derivatives with potential antiepileptic activity; this was then confirmed in in vitro and in vivo mammalian seizure models. Some of these compounds are more potent than valproate and potentially lack many of the major side effects of valproate (including birth defects and liver toxicity). In addition, one of the compounds that we have identified is a major constituent of the ketogenic diet, strongly arguing that it may be the fatty acids and not the ketogenesis that are mediating the effect of this diet.

Seizure-induced reduction in PIP3 levels contributes to seizure-activity and is rescued by valproic acid.

Phosphatidylinositol (3-5) trisphosphate (PIP3) is a central regulator of diverse neuronal functions that are critical for seizure progression, however its role in seizures is unclear. We have recently hypothesised that valproic acid (VPA), one of the most commonly used drugs for the treatment of epilepsy, may target PIP3 signalling as a therapeutic mode of action. Here, we show that seizure induction using kainic acid in a rat in vivo epilepsy model resulted in a decrease in hippocampal PIP3 levels and reduced protein kinase B (PKB/AKT) phosphorylation, measured using ELISA mass assays and Western blot analysis, and both changes were restored following VPA treatment. These finding were reproduced in cultured rat hippocampal primary neurons and entorhinal cortex-hippocampal slices during exposure to the GABA(A) receptor antagonist pentylenetetrazol (PTZ), which is widely used to generate seizures and seizure-like (paroxysmal) activity. Moreover, VPA's effect on paroxysmal activity in the PTZ slice model is blocked by phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) inhibition or PIP2 sequestration by neomycin, indicating that VPA's efficacy is dependent upon PIP3 signalling. PIP3 depletion following PTZ treatment may also provide a positive feedback loop, since enhancing PIP3 depletion increases, and conversely, reducing PIP3 dephosphorylation reduces paroxysmal activity and this effect is dependent upon AMPA receptor activation. Our results therefore indicate that PIP3 depletion occurs with seizure activity, and that VPA functions to reverse these effects, providing a novel mechanism for VPA in epilepsy treatment.

A novel human receptor involved in bitter tastant detection identified using Dictyostelium discoideum.

Detection of substances tasting bitter to humans occurs in diverse organisms including the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. To establish a molecular mechanism for bitter tastant detection in Dictyostelium, we screened a mutant library for resistance to a commonly used bitter standard, phenylthiourea. This approach identified a G-protein-coupled receptor mutant, grlJ(-), which showed a significantly increased tolerance to phenylthiourea in growth, survival and movement. This mutant was not resistant to a structurally dissimilar potent bitter tastant, denatonium benzoate, suggesting it is not a target for at least one other bitter tastant. Analysis of the cell-signalling pathway involved in the detection of phenylthiourea showed dependence upon heterotrimeric G protein and phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase activity, suggesting that this signalling pathway is responsible for the cellular effects of phenylthiourea. This is further supported by a phenylthiourea-dependent block in the transient cAMP-induced production of phosphatidylinositol (3,4,5)-trisphosphate (PIP3) in wild-type but not grlJ(-) cells. Finally, we have identified an uncharacterized human protein γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) type B receptor subunit 1 isoform with weak homology to GrlJ that restored grlJ(-) sensitivity to phenylthiourea in cell movement and PIP3 regulation. Our results thus identify a novel pathway for the detection of the standard bitter tastant phenylthiourea in Dictyostelium and implicate a poorly characterized human protein in phenylthiourea-dependent cell responses.

Zizimin and Dock guanine nucleotide exchange factors in cell function and disease.

Zizimin proteins belong to the Dock (Dedicator of Cytokinesis) superfamily of Guanine nucleotide Exchange Factor (GEF) proteins. This family of proteins plays a role in the regulation of Rho family small GTPases. Together the Rho family of small GTPases and the Dock/Zizimin proteins play a vital role in a number of cell processes including cell migration, apoptosis, cell division and cell adhesion. Our recent studies of Zizimin proteins, using a simple biomedical model, the eukaryotic social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum, have helped to elucidate the cellular role of these proteins. In this article, we discuss the domain structure of Zizimin proteins from an evolutionary viewpoint. We also compare what is currently known about the mammalian Zizimin proteins to that of related Dock proteins. Understanding the cellular functions of these proteins will provide a better insight into their role in cell signaling, and may help in treating disease pathology associated with mutations in Dock/Zizimin proteins.

Seizure control by ketogenic diet-associated medium chain fatty acids.

The medium chain triglyceride (MCT) ketogenic diet is used extensively for treating refractory childhood epilepsy. This diet increases the plasma levels of medium straight chain fatty acids. A role for these and related fatty acids in seizure control has not been established. We compared the potency of an established epilepsy treatment, Valproate (VPA), with a range of MCT diet-associated fatty acids (and related branched compounds), using in vitro seizure and in vivo epilepsy models, and assessed side effect potential in vitro for one aspect of teratogenicity, for liver toxicology and in vivo for sedation, and for a neuroprotective effect. We identify specific medium chain fatty acids (both prescribed in the MCT diet, and related compounds branched on the fourth carbon) that provide significantly enhanced in vitro seizure control compared to VPA. The activity of these compounds on seizure control is independent of histone deacetylase inhibitory activity (associated with the teratogenicity of VPA), and does not correlate with liver cell toxicity. In vivo, these compounds were more potent in epilepsy control (perforant pathway stimulation induced status epilepticus), showed less sedation and enhanced neuroprotection compared to VPA. Our data therefore implicates medium chain fatty acids in the mechanism of the MCT ketogenic diet, and highlights a related new family of compounds that are more potent than VPA in seizure control with a reduced potential for side effects. This article is part of the Special Issue entitled 'New Targets and Approaches to the Treatment of Epilepsy'.

The Rac GEF ZizB regulates development, cell motility and cytokinesis in Dictyostelium.

Dock (dedicator of cytokinesis) proteins represent a family of guanine nucleotide exchange factors (GEFs) that include the well-studied Dock180 family and the poorly characterised zizimin family. Our current understanding of Dock180 function is that it regulates Rho small GTPases and thus has a role in a number of cell processes, including cell migration, development and division. Here, we use a tractable model for cell motility research, Dictyostelium discoideum, to help elucidate the role of the related zizimin proteins. We show that gene ablation of zizA causes no change in development, whereas ablation of zizB gives rise to an aberrant developmental morphology and a reduction in cell directionality and velocity, and altered cell shape. Fluorescently labelled ZizA protein associates with the microtubule-organising centre (MTOC), whereas ZizB is enriched in the cortex. Overexpression of ZizB also causes an increase in the number of filopodia and a partial inhibition of cytokinesis. Analysis of ZizB protein binding partners shows that it interacts with Rac1a and a range of actin-associated proteins. In conclusion, our work provides insight into the molecular and cellular functions of zizimin GEF proteins, which are shown to have a role in cell movement, filopodia formation and cytokinesis.

RpkA, a highly conserved GPCR with a lipid kinase domain, has a role in phagocytosis and anti-bacterial defense.

RpkA (Receptor phosphatidylinositol kinase A) is an unusual seven-helix transmembrane protein of Dictyostelium discoideum with a G protein coupled receptor (GPCR) signature and a C-terminal lipid kinase domain (GPCR-PIPK) predicted as a phosphatidylinositol-4-phosphate 5-kinase. RpkA-homologs are present in all so far sequenced Dictyostelidae as well as in several other lower eukaryotes like the oomycete Phytophthora, and in the Legionella host Acanthamoeba castellani. Here we show by immunofluorescence that RpkA localizes to endosomal membranes and is specifically recruited to phagosomes. RpkA interacts with the phagosomal protein complex V-ATPase as proteins of this complex co-precipitate with RpkA-GFP as well as with the GST-tagged PIPK domain of RpkA. Loss of RpkA leads to a defect in phagocytosis as measured by yeast particle uptake. The uptake of the pathogenic bacterium Legionella pneumophila was however unaltered whereas its intra-cellular replication was significantly enhanced in rpkA(-). The difference between wild type and rpkA(-) was even more prominent when L. hackeliae was used. When we investigated the reason for the enhanced susceptibility for L. pneumophila of rpkA(-) we could not detect a difference in endosomal pH but rpkA(-) showed depletion of phosphoinositides (PIP and PIP(2)) when we compared metabolically labeled phosphoinositides from wild type and rpkA(-). Furthermore rpkA(-) exhibited reduced nitrogen starvation tolerance, an indicator for a reduced autophagy rate. Our results indicate that RpkA is a component of the defense system of D. discoideum as well as other lower eukaryotes.

Conserved valproic-acid-induced lipid droplet formation in Dictyostelium and human hepatocytes identifies structurally active compounds.

Lipid droplet formation and subsequent steatosis (the abnormal retention of lipids within a cell) has been reported to contribute to hepatotoxicity and is an adverse effect of many pharmacological agents including the antiepileptic drug valproic acid (VPA). In this study, we have developed a simple model system (Dictyostelium discoideum) to investigate the effects of VPA and related compounds in lipid droplet formation. In mammalian hepatocytes, VPA increases lipid droplet accumulation over a 24-hour period, giving rise to liver cell damage, and we show a similar effect in Dictyostelium following 30 minutes of VPA treatment. Using (3)H-labelled polyunsaturated (arachidonic) or saturated (palmitic) fatty acids, we shown that VPA treatment of Dictyostelium gives rise to an increased accumulation of both types of fatty acids in phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine and non-polar lipids in this time period, with a similar trend observed in human hepatocytes (Huh7 cells) labelled with [(3)H]arachidonic acid. In addition, pharmacological inhibition of β-oxidation in Dictyostelium phenocopies fatty acid accumulation, in agreement with data reported in mammalian systems. Using Dictyostelium, we then screened a range of VPA-related compounds to identify those with high and low lipid-accumulation potential, and validated these activities for effects on lipid droplet formation by using human hepatocytes. Structure-activity relationships for these VPA-related compounds suggest that lipid accumulation is independent of VPA-catalysed teratogenicity and inositol depletion. These results suggest that Dictyostelium could provide both a novel model system for the analysis of lipid droplet formation in human hepatocytes and a rapid method for identifying VPA-related compounds that show liver toxicology.

Investigating the effect of emetic compounds on chemotaxis in Dictyostelium identifies a non-sentient model for bitter and hot tastant research.

Novel chemical entities (NCEs) may be investigated for emetic liability in a range of unpleasant experiments involving retching, vomiting or conditioned taste aversion/food avoidance in sentient animals. We have used a range of compounds with known emetic /aversive properties to examine the possibility of using the social amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum, for research into identifying and understanding emetic liability, and hence reduce adverse animal experimentation in this area. Twenty eight emetic or taste aversive compounds were employed to investigate the acute (10 min) effect of compounds on Dictyostelium cell behaviour (shape, speed and direction of movement) in a shallow chemotaxic gradient (Dunn chamber). Compound concentrations were chosen based on those previously reported to be emetic or aversive in in vivo studies and results were recorded and quantified by automated image analysis. Dictyostelium cell motility was rapidly and strongly inhibited by four structurally distinct tastants (three bitter tasting compounds--denatonium benzoate, quinine hydrochloride, phenylthiourea, and the pungent constituent of chilli peppers--capsaicin). In addition, stomach irritants (copper chloride and copper sulphate), and a phosphodiesterase IV inhibitor also rapidly blocked movement. A concentration-dependant relationship was established for five of these compounds, showing potency of inhibition as capsaicin (IC(50) = 11.9 ± 4.0 µM) > quinine hydrochloride (IC(50) = 44.3 ± 6.8 µM) > denatonium benzoate (IC(50) = 129 ± 4 µM) > phenylthiourea (IC(50) = 366 ± 5 µM) > copper sulphate (IC(50) = 1433 ± 3 µM). In contrast, 21 compounds within the cytotoxic and receptor agonist/antagonist classes did not affect cell behaviour. Further analysis of bitter and pungent compounds showed that the effect on cell behaviour was reversible and not cytotoxic, suggesting an uncharacterised molecular mechanism of action for these compounds. These results therefore demonstrate that Dictyostelium has potential as a non-sentient model in the analysis of the molecular effects of tastants, although it has limited utility in identification of emetic agents in general.

The antiepileptic drug valproic acid and other medium-chain fatty acids acutely reduce phosphoinositide levels independently of inositol in Dictyostelium.

Valproic acid (VPA) is the most widely prescribed epilepsy treatment worldwide, but its mechanism of action remains unclear. Our previous work identified a previously unknown effect of VPA in reducing phosphoinositide production in the simple model Dictyostelium followed by the transfer of data to a mammalian synaptic release model. In our current study, we show that the reduction in phosphoinositide [PtdInsP (also known as PIP) and PtdInsP(2) (also known as PIP(2))] production caused by VPA is acute and dose dependent, and that this effect occurs independently of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) activity, inositol recycling and inositol synthesis. In characterising the structural requirements for this effect, we also identify a family of medium-chain fatty acids that show increased efficacy compared with VPA. Within the group of active compounds is a little-studied group previously associated with seizure control, and analysis of two of these compounds (nonanoic acid and 4-methyloctanoic acid) shows around a threefold enhanced potency compared with VPA for protection in an in vitro acute rat seizure model. Together, our data show that VPA and a newly identified group of medium-chain fatty acids reduce phosphoinositide levels independently of inositol regulation, and suggest the reinvestigation of these compounds as treatments for epilepsy.

Identifying an uptake mechanism for the antiepileptic and bipolar disorder treatment valproic acid using the simple biomedical model Dictyostelium.

Valproic acid (VPA) is the most highly prescribed epilepsy treatment worldwide and is also used to prevent bipolar disorder and migraine. Surprisingly, very little is known about its mechanisms of cellular uptake. Here, we employ a range of cellular, molecular and genetic approaches to characterize VPA uptake using a simple biomedical model, Dictyostelium discoideum. We show that VPA is taken up against an electrochemical gradient in a dose-dependent manner. Transport is protein-mediated, dependent on pH and the proton gradient and shows strong substrate structure specificity. Using a genetic screen, we identified a protein homologous to a mammalian solute carrier family 4 (SLC4) bicarbonate transporter that we show is involved in VPA uptake. Pharmacological and genetic ablation of this protein reduces the uptake of VPA and partially protects against VPA-dependent developmental effects, and extracellular bicarbonate competes for VPA uptake in Dictyostelium. We further show that this uptake mechanism is likely to be conserved in both zebrafish (Danio rerio) and Xenopus laevis model systems. These results implicate, for the first time, an uptake mechanism for VPA through SLC4-catalysed activity.

Bio-electrospraying and aerodynamically assisted bio-jetting the model eukaryotic Dictyostelium discoideum: assessing stress and developmental competency post treatment.

Bio-electrospraying (BES) and aerodynamically assisted bio-jetting (AABJ) have recently been established as important novel biospray technologies for directly manipulating living cells. To elucidate their potential in medical and clinical sciences, these bio-aerosol techniques have been subjected to increasingly rigorous investigations. In parallel to these studies, we wish to introduce these unique biotechnologies for use in the basic biological sciences, for handling a wide range of cell types and systems, thus increasing the range and the scope of these techniques for modern research. Here, the authors present the analysis of the new use of these biospray techniques for the direct handling of the simple eukaryotic biomedical model organism Dictyostelium discoideum. These cells are widely used as a model for immune cell chemotaxis and as a simple model for development. We demonstrate that AABJ of these cells did not cause cell stress, as defined by the stress-gene induction, nor affect cell development. Furthermore, although BES induced the increased expression of one stress-related gene (gapA), this was not a generalized stress response nor did it affect cell development. These data suggest that these biospray techniques can be used to directly manipulate single cells of this biomedical model without inducing a generalized stress response or perturbing later development.

Molecular pharmacology in a simple model system: implicating MAP kinase and phosphoinositide signalling in bipolar disorder.

Understanding the mechanisms of drug action has been the primary focus for pharmacological researchers, traditionally using rodent models. However, non-sentient model systems are now increasingly being used as an alternative approach to better understand drug action or targets. One of these model systems, the social amoeba Dictyostelium, enables the rapid ablation or over-expression of genes, and the subsequent use of isogenic cell culture for the analysis of cell signalling pathways in pharmacological research. The model also supports an increasingly important ethical view of research, involving the reduction, replacement and refinement of animals in biomedical research. This review outlines the use of Dictyostelium in understanding the pharmacological action of two commonly used bipolar disorder treatments (valproic acid and lithium). Both of these compounds regulate mitogen activated protein (MAP) kinase and inositol phospholipid-based signalling by unknown means. Analysis of the molecular pathways targeted by these drugs in Dictyostelium and translation of discoveries to animal systems has helped to further understand the molecular mechanisms of these bipolar disorder treatments.