Exploring the potential for connexin therapeutics

By Emily Leighton, MA'13

According to Dale Laird, PhD, therapeutics that regulate our cell’s communication channels are within reach. “There is a strong sense in the field that it is just a matter of time before connexin therapeutics will be in your local pharmacy,” he explained. “It is not difficult to envision ointments, creams or drops that could be applied to surface wounds that carry connexin-modulating treatments.”

The Schulich Medicine & Dentistry researcher and Distinguished University Professor recently co-authored an article in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery exploring the potential for these types of therapeutics.

Described by Laird as a form of “cellular small talk”, gap junctions and their connexins are found in just about every cell type in the human body and act as channels for communication between neighbouring cells. These channels allow the cells to connect and send small molecules back and forth.

Mutations in the connexin gene family and connexin regulation are linked to a variety of acquired and inherited diseases and conditions, including injury and wound repair, hearing loss, cancer and cardiac disease. This is where connexin therapeutics may play a role, targeting the defect and restoring normal communication.

Laird's laboratory has been engaged in this area of research for more than 25 years. With this considerable expertise and experience in the field, he was approached last year by a senior editor at Nature Reviews Drug Discovery to write about the emerging landscape and future promise of connexin therapeutics.  

In the article, Laird and co-author Paul Lampe, PhD, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, review the role of connexins in health and disease, and outline three avenues for the development of therapeutics: gene-editing technology, oral medication and strategies to initiate or stimulate wound healing.

With several companies now leading clinical trials, Laird says he’s optimistic about how the field of connexin therapeutics will evolve. “The gap junction field awaits an eureka moment from an ongoing clinical trial that will drive connexin therapeutics forward,” he said. “It is truly an intriguing time for the field, as connexin biology has become ‘front and centre’ when considering many disease processes.”