Light-activated synthetic protein illuminates disease destruction

Illustration of collagen’s rope-like structure. Click to watch video. (INBT Animation Studios)

Johns Hopkins researchers have created a synthetic protein that, when activated by ultraviolet light, can guide doctors to places within the body where cancer, arthritis and other serious medical disorders can be detected. The synthetic protein does not zero in directly on the diseased cells. Instead, it binds to nearby collagen that has been degraded by disease or injury.

“These disease cells are like burglars who break into a house and do lots of damage but who are not there when the police arrive,” said S. Michael Yu, a faculty member in the Whiting School of Engineering’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “Instead of looking for the burglars, our synthetic protein is reacting to evidence left at the scene of the crime,” said Yu, who was principal investigator in the study.

The technique could lead to a new type of diagnostic imaging technology and may someday serve as a way to move medications to parts of the body where signs of disease have been found. In a study published in the Aug. 27-31 Online Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers reported success in using the synthetic protein in mouse models to locate prostate and pancreatic cancers, as well as to detect abnormal bone growth activity associated with Marfan syndrome.

Collagen, the body’s most abundant protein, provides structure and creates a sturdy framework upon which cells build nerves, bone and skin. Some buildup and degradation of collagen is normal, but disease cells such as cancer can send out enzymes that break down collagen at an accelerated pace. It is this excessive damage, caused by disease, that the new synthetic protein can detect, the researchers said.

A key collaborator was Martin Pomper, a School of Medicine professor of radiology and co-principal investigator of the Johns Hopkins Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence. Pomper and Yu met as fellow affiliates of the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. “A major unmet medical need is for a better non-invasive characterization of disrupted collagen, which occurs in a wide variety of disorders,” Pomper said. “Michael has found what could be a very elegant and practical solution, which we are converting into a suite of imaging and potential agents for diagnosis and treatment.”

The synthetic proteins used in the study are called collagen mimetic peptides or CMPs. These tiny bits of protein are attracted to and physically bind to degraded strands of collagen, particularly those damaged by disease. Fluorescent tags are placed on each CMP so that it will show up when doctors scan tissue with fluorescent imaging equipment. The glowing areas indicate the location of damaged collagen that is likely to be associated with disease.

In developing the technique, the researchers faced a challenge because CMPs tend to bind with one another and form their own structures, similar to DNA, in a way that would cause them to ignore the disease-linked collagen targeted by the researchers.

To remedy this, the study’s lead author, Yang Li, synthesized CMPs that possess a chemical “cage” to keep the proteins from binding with one another. Just prior to entering the bloodstream to search for damaged collagen, a powerful ultraviolet light is used to “unlock” the cage and allow the CMPs to initiate their disease-tracking mission. Li is a doctoral student from the Department of Chemistry in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins. Yu, who holds a joint appointment in that department, is his doctoral adviser.

Yu’s team tested Li’s fluorescently tagged and caged peptides by injecting them into lab mice that possessed both prostate and pancreatic human cancer cells. Through a series of fluorescent images taken over four days, researchers tracked single strands of the synthetic protein spreading throughout the tumor sites via blood vessels and binding to collagen that had been damaged by cancer.

Similar in vivo tests showed that the CMP can target bones and cartilage that contain large amounts of degraded collagen. Therefore, the new protein could be used for diagnosis and treatment related to bone and cartilage damage.

Although the process is not well understood, the breakdown and rebuilding of collagen is thought to play a role in the excessive bone growth found in patients with Marfan syndrome. Yu’s team tested their CMPs on a mouse model for this disease and saw increased CMP binding in the ribs and spines of the Marfan mice, as compared to the control mice.

Funding for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. The synthetic protein process used in this research is protected by patents obtained through the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer Office.

Along with Yu, Li and Pomper, co-authors of this study were instructor Catherine A. Foss and medical resident Collin M. Torok from the Department of Radiology and Radiological Science at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; Harry C. Dietz, a professor, and Jefferson J. Doyle, a doctoral student, both of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Institute of Genetic Medicine at the School of Medicine; and Daniel D. Summerfield a former master’s student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Adapted from an original press release by Phil Sneiderman.

 

Killing prostate cancer cells with out harming the healthy cells

Experimenting with human prostate cancer cells and mice, cancer imaging experts at Johns Hopkins say they have developed a method for finding and killing malignant cells while sparing healthy ones.

The method, called “theranostic” imaging, targets and tracks potent drug therapies directly and only to cancer cells. It relies on binding an originally inactive form of drug chemotherapy, with an enzyme, to specific proteins on tumor cell surfaces and detecting the drug’s absorption into the tumor. The binding of the highly specific drug-protein complex, or nanoplex, to the cell surface allows it to get inside the cancerous cell, where the enzyme slowly activates the tumor-killing drug.

Researchers say their findings, published in the journal American Chemical Society Nano online Aug. 6, are believed to be the first to show that chemotherapies can be precisely controlled at the molecular level to maximize their effectiveness against tumors, while also minimizing their side effects.

Senior study investigator Zaver Bhujwalla, Ph.D., a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Kimmel Cancer Center, notes that a persistent problem with current chemotherapy is that it attacks all kinds of cells and tissues, not just cancerous ones.

In the theranostic imaging experiments, overseen by Bhujwalla and study co-investigator Martin Pomper, M.D., Ph.D., investigators directed drugs only to cancer cells, specifically those with prostate-specific membrane antigen, or PSMA cell surface proteins. Both Pomper and Bhujwalla are affiliated faculty members of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

“Our results show a non-invasive imaging approach to following and delivering targeted therapy to any cancer that expresses PSMA,” says Bhujwalla, who also serves as director of the Johns Hopkins In Vivo Cellular and Molecular Imaging Center (ICMIC), where the theranostic imaging studies were developed.

Bhujwalla says the new technique potentially will work against any cancer in which tumors elevate production of certain cell surface proteins. Examples would include breast cancers with HER-2/neu and CXCR4 proteins, and some liver, lung and kidney cancers also known to express particular proteins. She notes that PSMA is expressed in the vessels of most solid tumors, suggesting that the nanoplex reported in the latest study could be used in general to image and treat a variety of cancers.

In their latest series of experiments, primarily in mice injected with human prostate tumor cells, Bhujwalla and the Johns Hopkins team tested their ability to track with imaging devices the delivery of anti-cancer drugs directly to tumors. Some of the tumors comprised cells with PSMA, while other so-called control tumors had none. Included in the drug nanoplex were small strands of RNA, cell construction acids that can be used instead to block and turn down production of a well-known enzyme, choline kinase, whose levels usually rise with tumor growth. All nanoplex components were imaged inside the tumor, in addition to dropping choline kinase production, which decreased by 80 percent within 48 hours of nanoplex absorption into cells with ample PSMA. When researchers used antibodies to block the action of PSMA, down went the level of nanoplex uptake and drug activation in cancerous cells as measured by dimming of the image.

Different concentrations of the drug nanoplex, tagged with radioactive and fluorescent molecules, were mixed in the lab with prostate cancer tissue cells, some of which had extra PSMA and others which had none. Only those cells with extra PSMA showed nanoplex uptake, as measured by image intensity, which later decreased when PSMA-blocking chemicals were added (back to levels seen in cells with almost no PSMA).

Additional experiments involving injections of three different concentrations of the drug nanoplex showed no damage to other vital mouse organs, such as the kidney and liver, nor any uptick in the mouse immune system response.

“Our theranostic imaging approach shows how the best methods of detection and treatment can be combined to form highly specialized, more potent and safer forms of chemotherapy,” says Pomper, a professor at Johns Hopkins who also serves as an associate director at ICMIC.

He says that an important goal for theranostic imaging is to move it beyond standard chemotherapy that attacks one target molecule at a time.

“With theranostic imaging, we can attack multiple tumor targets, making it harder for the tumor to evade drug treatment,” says Pomper, who is already working with colleagues at Johns Hopkins to identify other molecular targets.

The most recent studies were performed at Johns Hopkins over two years, starting in 2010, with funding support from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. The corresponding grant numbers are P50-CA103175, RO1-CA138515 and RO1-CA134675.

In addition to Bhujwalla and Pomper, other Johns Hopkins researchers from the Russell H. Morgan Department of Radiology involved in this imaging study were lead investigators Zhihang Chen, Ph.D., and Mary-France Penet, Ph.D. Additional study co-investigators were Sridhar Nimmagadda, Ph.D.; Li Cong, Ph.D.; Sangeeta Banerjee, Ph.D.; Paul Winnard Jr., Ph.D.; Dmitri Artemov, Ph.D.; and Kristine Glunde, Ph.D.

Press release by David March

Therapeutic nanolex containing multi-modal imaging reporters targeted to prostate specific membrane antigen (PSMA), which is expressed on the cell surface of castrate resistant PCa. (Image by Chen et al. from ACS Nano 2012).