Site-specific PEGylation of protein bisulfide bonds using a three-carbon bridge
The covalent conjugation of a functionalized poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) to multiple nucleophilic amine residues results in a heterogeneous mixture of PEG positional isomers. Their physicochemical, biological, and pharmaceutical properties vary with the site of conjugation of PEG. Yields are low because of inefficient conjugation chemistry and production costs high because of complex purification procedures. Our solution to these fundamental problems in PEGylating proteins has been to exploit the latent conjugation selectivity of the two sulfur atoms that are derived from the ubiquitous disulfide bonds of proteins. This approach to PEGylation involves two steps: (1) reduction to release the two cysteine thiols and (2) re-forming the disulfide by bis-alkylation via a three-disulfide carbon bridge to which PEG was covalently attached. During this process, irreversible denaturation of the protein did not occur. Mechanistically, the conjugation is conducted by a sequential, interactive bis-alkylation using α,β-unsaturated β′- monosulfone functionalized PEG reagents. The combination of (a) maintaining the protein's tertiary structure after disulfide reduction, (b) the mechanism for bis-thiol selectivity of the PEG reagent, and (c) the steric shielding of PEG ensure that only one PEG molecule is conjugated at each disulfide bond. PEG was site-specifically conjugated via a three-carbon bridge to 2 equiv of the tripeptide glutathione, the cyclic peptide hormone somatostatin, the tetrameric protein L-asparaginase, and to the disulfides in interferon α-2b (IFN). SDS-PAGE, mass spectral, and NMR analyses were used to confirm conjugation, thiol selectivity, and connectivity. The biological activity of the L-asparaginase did not change after the attachment of four PEG molecules. In the case of IFN, a small reduction in biological activity was seen with the single-bridged IFN (without PEG attached). A significantly larger reduction in biological activity was seen with the three-carbon disulfide single-bridged PEG-IFNs and with the double-bridged IFN (without PEG attached). The reduction of the PEG-IFN's in vitro biological activity was a consequence of the steric shielding caused by PEG, and it was comparable to that seen with all other forms of PEG-IFNs reported. However, when a three-carbon bridge was used to attach PEG, our PEG-IFN's biological activity was found to be independent of the length of the PEG. This property has not previously been described for PEG-IFNs. Our studies therefore suggest that peptides, proteins, enzymes, and antibody fragments can be site-specifically PEGylated across a native disulfide bond using three-carbon bridges without destroying their tertiary structure or abolishing their biological activity. The stoichiometric efficiency of this approach also enables recycling of any unreacted protein. It therefore offers the potential to make PEGylated biopharmaceuticals as cost-effective medicines for global use.