Panda and his collaborators turned to the Lundbeck library of diverse compounds. In hundreds of 384-well plates, a team led by Ken Jones at Lundbeck tested whether each chemical from the library turned off melanopsin by measuring the calcium levels after the plate was exposed to light. When melanopsin is functioning, calcium levels increase after light exposure indicating that light has been sensed and a signal is being generated. Several compounds from the chemical library stopped this calcium increase from happening, suggesting that they were blocking the function of melanopsin.
None of these compounds looked like retinoids, so it was an exciting breakthrough, Panda says. The chemicals, dubbed opsinamides (see structures a few), also
showed no interaction with rhodopsin or other opsins. "We wanted to make sure they were specific to melanopsin," says Panda. To find out whether the opsinamides would have a physiological response in addition to binding to melanopsin in bench experiments, Megumi Hatori and Ludovic Mure from Panda's Salk lab group next looked at whether the drug affected the pupillary constriction in mice. Normally, in extremely bright light, the pupil of the eye shrinks to its smallest size. But when the mice were treated with one of the opsinamides, their pupils didn't shrink as usual. Most importantly, the drug had no detectable effect in mice lacking melanopsin, further showing its specificity for melanopsin. Finally, newborn mice treated with the compound no longer avoided bright lights. The results, Panda says, show that the drug is stopping melanopsin from signaling the brain when the eyes are exposed to bright light.
"So far, everything known about melanopsin has been discovered using knock-out mice that completely lack the receptor," says Panda. "So this offers a new way to study the protein." Kenneth Jones, the former project head at Lundbeck, notes that "the two compounds require further optimization in anticipation of clinical testing but are extraordinarily useful for research purposes and as leads in the discovery process." Co-author Jeffrey Sprouse has co-founded a start-up company, Cyanaptic, to do just that...