Stapled peptides for targeting intracellular signaling pathways: research and commercial development

In the 12 November issue of Nature, there was a research article and a News and Views minireview about targeting an intracellular signaling pathway with a novel type of compound called a stapled peptide.

Signaling pathways are crucial for cellular physiology, and in the pathobiology of important diseases ranging from metabolic diseases to cancer. In many cases, signaling proteins that work by binding to other proteins in protein-protein interactions are key control points in signaling pathways. However, protein-protein interactions in all but a few cases cannot be readily addressed with small molecule drugs. These targets are therefore called “undruggable”. Some signaling pathways consist entirely of these “undruggable” targets, and can only be addressed indirectly (if at all) via targeting other pathways that interact with them.

Several small-molecule drugs that do address protein-protein interactions are natural products. The best known of these is the immunosuppressant FK506 (tacrolimus, Astellas’ Prograf). This is one reason for the new interest in natural products by some companies and researchers, as we discussed in a previous blog post.

However, the 12 November Nature article, authored by James E Bradner (Chemical Biology Program, Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, Cambridge, MA, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, MA), Gregory Verdine (Department of Chemical Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute), and their colleagues, takes a different approach. The researchers target specific intracellular protein-protein interactions by designing special types of peptides known as stapled peptides.

The signaling pathway that is the focus of this article is the Notch pathway. In normal physiology, this pathway regulates various aspects of cell-cell communication, cellular differentiation, cell proliferation, and cellular survival or death. Deregulated Notch pathway function is involved in diseases including cancers of the lung, ovary and pancreas, and in T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), which is a cancer of immature T cells.

Notch is a cell-membrane receptor. Binding of one of its ligands (on the surface of an adjacent cell) to the extracellular domain of Notch triggers sequential cleavage of the Notch intracellular domain by a metalloproteinase known as TACE (tumor necrosis factor alpha converting enzyme) and by γ-secretase (an enzyme which is also involved in the amyloid pathway that is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease). The free intracellular domain of Notch, called ICN, migrates to the nucleus, and docks with the DNA-bound transcription factor CSL. The interaction between CSL and ICN creates a groove along the interface of the two proteins, which serves as a docking site for the mastermind-like protein MAML1. The resulting trimolecular complex initiates specific transcription of Notch-dependent target genes.

The binding domain of MAML1 that engages the elongated groove formed by the ICN-CSL complex is in the form of an α-helix. The researchers therefore designed a series of peptides derived from portions of the sequence of the MAML1 binding domain. These were stapled peptides in which hydrocarbon moieties are used to constrain, or “staple”, MAML1 binding-domain mimetic sequences into an α-helical conformation. One such stapled peptide, SAMH1, gave the highest affinity binding to ICN and CSL, and competitively inhibited binding of wild-type MAML1 to these proteins.

SAMH1 was cell-penetrant, and inhibited intracellular Notch pathway signaling in cultured T-ALL cell lines. Moreover, SAMH1 reduced the proliferation of a variety of T-ALL cell lines in vitro, but was inactive against T-cell tumor lines that were not dependent on the Notch pathway for their proliferation. In SAMH1-sensitive T-cell tumor lines, SAMH1 treatment activated caspases, which are involved in apoptosis. In a mouse model of T-ALL, intraperitoneally injected SAMH1 inhibited leukemic progression, and inhibited Notch pathway signaling in leukemic cells in vivo.

Stapled peptides are not conventional “drug-like” compounds. Their molecular weights are several times greater than the 500-dalton maximum prescribed by Lipinski’s rules (developed by the leading medicinal chemist Chris Lipinski), which are used to define “drug-like” properties of small molecule compounds. Moreover, peptides are usually subject to protease degradation in vivo, and thus have short serum half-lives. In most cases, peptides do not enter into cells efficiently, except for those peptides that have specific cell-membrane receptors.

However, stapled α-helical peptides, in addition to their improved binding activities to their specific targets, are protease-resistant, have improved serum half-lives, and are cell penetrant. Researchers attribute these properties to the constrained conformation of these molecules, and to the hydrocarbon staples themselves. For example, the hydrocarbon staples may confer lipophilic properties to these molecules, and thus render them membrane-penetrant.

In an earlier study, Dr. Verdine and researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Children’s Hospital in Boston designed a stapled α-helical peptide that initiated apoptosis by specifically binding to and activating a member of the Bcl-2 family, and that inhibited the grown of leukemic cells in a mouse model. The researchers have been continuing to develop and to determine the mechanisms of action of their Bcl-2 family-targeting stapled peptides.

The discovery-stage biotechnology company Aileron Therapeutics was founded in 2005 to develop and commercialize stapled peptides. The company’s scientific founders include Dr. Verdine, Loren Walensky (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute), and the late Stanley J. Korsmeyer (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a pioneer in the study of the Bcl-2 family and its role in apoptosis and in the biology of cancer). It has a pipeline of stapled peptides that it is developing for the treatment of solid and hematological tumors, the most advanced of which are in the preclinical stage. Aileron has managed to attract venture capital despite the current adverse conditions–in June 2009, the company closed a $40 million Series D financing.

Stapled peptides represent an exciting and innovative technology with the potential to address “undruggable” protein-protein interactions, and thus to treat diseases that represent major unmet medical needs. However, this technology is in an early stage, and the therapeutic value of stapled peptides has not yet been confirmed in the clinic.

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