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Peptide neurotoxins isolated from the venom of snakes, spiders and snails have represented invaluable tools for the identification and characterisation of membrane ion channels and receptors in vertebrate cells, including human neurons. We here report on the use of these toxins for the characterisation of membrane ion channels and receptors expressed by one of the most aggressive human cancers, small-cell lung carcinoma. This tumour shares many properties with other neuro-endocrine cell types, including the ability of firing action potentials and release hormones in a calcium-dependent manner. Toxins such as alpha-bungarotoxin and omega-conotoxins, among others, have been successfully used to characterise neuronal nicotinic receptors and voltage-dependent calcium channels, respectively, in human small-cell lung carcinoma cells. These receptors and ion channels are not only crucial for the growth of this specific tumour, but also represent autoantigens against which cancer patients build an autoimmune response. Although the aim of this autoimmune response is eventually the destruction of the cancer cells, the circulating antibodies cross-react with similar ion channels and receptors present in normal neurons or other cells, causing a number of different paraneoplastic diseases, the best characterised of which is the Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome. Conotoxin-based radioimmunoassays have become an invaluable tool for the diagnosis and follow up of these paraneoplastic disorders and could represent a step forward in the early diagnosis of small-cell lung carcinoma itself.


Journal article



Publication Date





927 - 936


Binding Sites, Bungarotoxins, Calcium Channel Blockers, Carcinoma, Small Cell, Conotoxins, Humans, Ion Channels, Lung Neoplasms, Neurotoxins, Paraneoplastic Syndromes, Receptors, Nicotinic, Tumor Cells, Cultured