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The patch clamp technique is commonly used in electrophysiological experiments and offers direct insight into ion channel properties through the characterization of ion channel activity. This technique can be used to elucidate the interaction between a drug and a specific ion channel at different conformational states to understand the ion channel modulators’ mechanisms. The patch clamp technique is regarded as a gold standard for ion channel research; however, it suffers from low throughput and high personnel costs. In the last decade, the development of several automated electrophysiology platforms has greatly increased the screen throughput of whole cell electrophysiological recordings. New advancements in the automated patch clamp systems have aimed to provide high data quality, high content, and high throughput. However, due to the limitations noted above, automated patch clamp systems are not capable of replacing manual patch clamp systems in ion channel research. While automated patch clamp systems are useful for screening large amounts of compounds in cell lines that stably express high levels of ion channels, the manual patch clamp technique is still necessary for studying ion channel properties in some research areas and for specific cell types, including primary cells that have mixed cell types and differentiated cells that derive from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) or embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Therefore, further improvements in flexibility with regard to cell types and data quality will broaden the applications of the automated patch clamp systems in both academia and industry.
Ion channels play essential roles in neuronal signal transduction, neuronal cell excitement, electrolyte transportation, and muscle contraction . The patch clamp technique, which is considered a gold standard in ion channel research, has been employed by various laboratories to characterize the ion channel properties of a variety of cells. This technique has also been used to study the pharmacological properties of the ion channel modulators that are used to treat many diseases, including epilepsy, diabetes, hypertension and pain . However, despite its high informational content, the patch clamp technique suffers from intensive labor requirements, a complex experimental procedure and low screen throughput.
To increase the screen throughput and reduce labor costs, several automated patch clamp systems have been developed and introduced in last ten years. These automated systems have primarily been used on compound screens to quickly quantify their affinities and to study the action mechanisms of on the compounds’ ion channels. Inhibition of activity in the hERG channel has been linked to cardiac safety issues for many approved drugs. To avoid such occurrences in the future, compound activity in the hERG channel should be examined early in the drug discovery process . Additionally, the patch clamp technique has recently been used to verify the maturity of differentiated cells that were derived from stem cells because ion channels are the ultimate functional markers of matured cells, such as neurons and muscle cells. Below, we review the features of both manual and automated patch clamp experiments and their concomitant advantages and limitations.
In the late 1970s, Bert Sakmann and Erwin Neher developed a patch clamp technique that accurately measured single channel activity . Their work led to the 1991 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The conventional patch clamp experiment, which consists of manual electrophysiology, uses glass microelectrodes that press against the cell surface to form a tight interaction with a giga-ohm (GΩ) seal resistance between the cell membrane and the rim of glass microelectrode. The current that flows across the plasma membrane can be directly measured by controlling the voltage applied to the membrane. This manual technique allows for a high degree of flexibility in recording configurations, including cell-attached patches, whole-cell patches, inside-out patches, and outside-out patches.
The cell-attached method, or on-cell patch, is often used to study ligand-gated ion channels, channels that are modulated by metabotropic receptors, or neurotransmitters. Compounds that will directly contact the external surface of the membrane are usually included in the pipette solution (Fig. 1A1A). This contact allows the concentration-response curves of the compound on ion channels can be accurately determined. The main disadvantage of this method is that only one compound concentration in a concentration-response curve can be measured per patch.
The whole cell method records the currents of multiple channels at once through a V-clamp and measures the membrane potential variation under the current clamp (Fig. 1B1B). The advantage of this method is that it allows better electrical access to the inside of a cell because the larger opening tip of the electrode provides lower resistance. The disadvantage is that intracellular contents may be dialyzed by a large volume of the pipette solution after 10 minutes of recording.
The inside-out patch is particularly useful for accessing the environment of the intracellular surfaces of the ion channels (Fig. 1C1C). Using this method, the channels that are activated by the intracellular ligands can be studied and the concentration response curves of the ligands can be established.
The outside-out patch can be used to examine the properties of an ion channel that is isolated from the cell (Fig. 1D1D). Compared with the cell-attached method, it is more convenient to perfuse the same patch with different solutions, and an entire concentration-response curve of a compound can be obtained in a single patch when the ion channels are activated from the extracellular face.
The loose patch clamp is different from the patch clamps discussed above. This type of clamp forms a loose-seal interaction between the cell membrane and the rim of the glass microelectrode. A significant advantage of this technique is that the pipette can be used repeatedly and the cell membrane remains intact. Thus, the loose patch clamp allows the recording of measurements in different locations on the plasma membrane of the same cell without destroying the cell during the each measurement. The major disadvantage of this method is the larger leakage that occurs due to the loose seal.
The manual patch clamp has long being considered the gold standard for investigations of ion channel properties and compound activities because it usually generates high-quality data, but the experimental procedures are complicated and time consuming. Therefore, the screening throughput for the compounds is very limited. To address this bottleneck, several automated patch clamp systems have been developed and introduced to the research market.
The currently available automated electrophysiology technologies can be divided into three categories: (A) the automated glass pipette-based patch clamp; (B) the micro-fabricated planar electrode-based patch clamp; (C) automated TEVC on Xenopus oocytes .
Several automated patch-clamp systems have been developed that use conventional electrodes to simplify the time-consuming patching procedure and to achieve a higher throughput and reproducibility with batter data quality. The techniques used by these systems  are represented in (Fig. 22), except for the Apachi-1 system, which uses imaging for pipette positioning .
In one approach, a pipette is moved to contact the surface of a randomly chosen cell that is suspended in one or more cell layers in a density-gradient solution (Fig. 2A2A, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company) or at the air/liquid interface (Fig. 2B2B, AutoPatchTM). The gigaohm seal can be achieved and whole cell access or other patch clamp configurations may be achieved in the same fashion as the conventional manual patch clamp technique. In a second approach, a tiny pipette tip is vertically positioned upwards in the center of a polyimide sheet that is set at the bottom of a well. Suspension cells are added, and one cell becomes attracted to and then attaches onto the opening of the pipette tip by negative pressure applied through the pipette tip (Fig. 2C2C, an automated patch-clamp system based on the “Cytocentering” technique for mammalian cells) . In a third approach, suspended cells flow through a glass pipette to the inside of the pipette’s tip, achieving the gigaohm seal and whole-cell patch configuration inside the micropipette tip (Fig. 2D2D, the Flyscreen system) .
These systems significantly reduce the amount of labor and attention required of the experimental operators. Some of the techniques are semi-automated, such as the Apachi-1, while the Robopatch performs entirely automatically, thus eliminating all of the manual operation steps from the traditional patch clamp technique .
However, there are still some drawbacks to the glass pipette-based automated patch clamp systems.
This technique utilizes microfabrication such as silicon or plastic–based planar arrays that have micron-size holes that allow loose or tight seal formations (Fig. 33) . Several systems that employ this technique are commercially available, including Q-patch, NPC-16, CytoPatchTM, IonWorks (IonWorks HT and IonWorks Quatto), and PatchXpress. Each technique system has its specific advantages and weaknesses (Table 11) that have been reviewed before [4, 5, 8, 10]. The major advantages of the planar electrode-based patch clamp include a large increase in throughput, exemplified by IonWorks HT, and very low compound consumption due to the low volume of planar chips. This method is especially suitable for experiments that use rare and expensive compounds or limited amounts of compounds are limited. Additionally, the electronic noise interference from the environment is reduced because of the compact size of the recording chips. However, there are still some drawbacks within these systems.
The automated systems of two-electrode voltage clamps (TEVC), including Robocyte and OpusXpressTM 6000A, have also been developed for studying ion channels expressed in Xenopus oocytes. These systems provide an option for multiple recordings in parallel or serial in Xenopus oocytes, although the development of automated patch clamp systems has mainly focused on mammalian cells using the planar-array-based approaches, as discussed above. Oocyte-based systems are not widely used for drug discovery for several reasons, including the non-mammalian nature of oocytes, for the need to inject RNA or cDNA into each oocyte and the potential differences in IC50 values between the TEVC and patched mammalian cells due to the compound lipophilicity .
The automating of patch clamp systems greatly simplifies the procedures of electrophysiology experiments and significantly increases compound screening throughput. This automation has broad applications in the ion channel drug discovery process. The systems that are currently commercially available to study ion functions possess a high throughput capability (represented by IonWorks HT) and produce high-quality data (represented by Patch-Xpress). The conventional patch clamp technique is not as suitable for screening large amounts of compounds as the automated patch clamp systems because the former has low throughput and requires extensive manual labor. However, the conventional patch clamp technique is still not replaceable by these automated patch clamp systems due to its unique features of high data quality and flexibility with cell types. For example, the conventional technique can be used to characterize the ion channels in differentiated cells (such as neurons and muscle cells) derived from iPSCs/ESCs. It can also be used for the in-depth characterization of ion channel properties and mechanism of action of a compound. Therefore, the automated patch clamp systems must be further improved and optimized to accommodate a variety of tasks, especially in terms of the flexibility required to meet the needs of academic researchers.
The authors confirm that this article content has no conflicts of interest.