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Farmaco. 1999 Aug 30;54(8):497-516.

Bioconjugation in pharmaceutical chemistry.

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Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Padua, Italy.


Polymer conjugation is of increasing interest in pharmaceutical chemistry for delivering drugs of simple structure or complex compounds such peptides, enzymes and oligonucleotides. For long time drugs, mainly with antitumoral activity, have been coupled to natural or synthetic polymers with the purpose of increasing their blood permanence time, taking advantage of the increased mass that reduces kidney ultrafiltration. However only recently complex constructs were devised that exploit the 'enhanced permeability and retention' (EPR) effect for an efficient tumor targeting, the high molecular weight for adsorption or receptor mediated endocytosis and finally a lysosomotropic targeting, taking advantage of acid labile bonds or cathepsin susceptible polypeptide spacers between polymer and drug. New original, very active conjugates of this type, as those based on poly(hydroxyacrylate) polymers, are already in advanced state of development. Labile oligonucleotides, including antisense drugs, were also successfully coupled to polymers in view of an increased cell penetration and stabilization towards nucleases. However, the most active research activity resides in the field of polypeptides and proteins delivery, mainly for the two following reasons: first of all because a great number of therapeutically interesting compounds are now being produced by genetic engineering in large quantity and, secondly, because these products are difficult to administer to patients for several inherent drawbacks. Proteins are in fact easily digested by many endo- and exo-peptidases present in blood or in other body districts; most of them are immunogenic to some extent and, finally, they are rapidly excreted by kidney ultrafiltration. Covalent polymer conjugation at protein surface was demonstrated to reduce or eliminate these problems, since the bound polymer behaves like a shield hindering the approach of proteolytic enzymes, antibodies, or antigen processing cell. Furthermore, the increase of the molecular weight of the conjugate allows to overcome the kidney elimination threshold. Many successful results were already obtained in peptides and proteins, conjugated mainly to water soluble or amphiphilic polymers like poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG), dextrans, or styrenemaleic acid anhydride. Among the most successful are the conjugates of asparaginase, interleukin-2 or -6 and neocarcinostatin, to remind some antitumor agents, adenosine deaminase employed in a genetic desease treatment, superoxide dismutase as scavenger of toxic radicals, hemoglobin as oxygen carrier and urokinase and streptokinase as proteins with antithrombotic activity. In pharmaceutical chemistry the conjugation with polymers is also of great importance for synthetic applications since many enzymes without loss of catalytic activity become soluble in organic solvents where many drug precursors are. The various and often difficult chemical problems encountered in conjugation of so many different products prompted the development of many synthetic procedures, all characterized by high specificity and mild condition of reaction, now known as 'bioconjugation chemistry'. Bioconjugation developed also the design of new tailor-made polymers with the wanted molecular weight, shape, structure and with the functional groups needed for coupling at the wanted positions in the chain.

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