An original potentiating mechanism revealed by the cryoEM structures of the human α7 nicotinic receptor in complex with nanobodies

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The human α7 nicotinic receptor is a pentameric channel mediating cellular and neuronal communication. It has attracted considerable interest to design ligands for the treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders. To develop a novel class of α7 ligands, we recently generated two nanobodies named E3 and C4 acting as positive and silent allosteric modulators respectively. Here, we solved the cryo-EM structures of the nanobody-receptor complexes. E3 and C4 bind to a common epitope involving two subunits at the apex of the receptor. They form by themselves a symmetric pentameric assembly that extends the extracellular domain. Unlike C4, the binding of E3 drives an active or desensitized conformation in the absence of orthosteric agonist, and mutational analysis shows a key contribution of a N-linked sugar moiety in mediating E3 potentiation. The nanobody E3, by remotely controlling the global allosteric conformation of the receptor, implements an original mechanism of regulation which opens new avenues for drug design.

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