Professors Donald Engelman of Yale, and Yana Reshetnyak of the University of Rhode Island are working on a unique peptide that would be a strong new weapon in the fight against cancer.
The researchers show that, the protein fragment, called “pHLIP” (pH (Low) Insertion Peptide) can be injected into the abdomen of a mouse, find its way into the blood and then specifically accumulate in tumors. Within 20 hours after injection of labeled pHLIP, the molecules had passed through the bloodstream and accumulated in mouse breast tumors grown to different “stages” on the leg of a mouse.
The researchers demonstrated that by attaching fluorescent probes to a pHLIP peptide, tumors could be detected. They expect that by attaching and delivering active agents with pHLIP, that tumors may be able to be treated. Targeting is based on the fact that most tumors, even very small ones, are acidic as a result of the way they grow.
The pHLIP molecule has three states: soluble in water, bound to the surface of a membrane, and inserted across the membrane as an alpha-helix. Under normal tissue conditions of neutral pH, the water-soluble form is favored. At acidic pH, the transmembrane alpha-helix predominates.
An earlier paper from the same groups shows that at low pH, pHLIP can move cell-impermeable molecules across a cell membrane, where they are released in the cytoplasm. “pHLIP acts as a molecular nanosyringe, inserting itself into the cell membrane and injecting compounds into cell,” said co-author Yana Reshetnyak, of the University of Rhode Island. “The transported molecules can be therapeutic or toxic to the cell, depending on the intended outcome–for treating cancer, the idea is to cause cell death.”