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ACS Chem Biol. 2015 Apr 17;10(4):1082-93. doi: 10.1021/cb500759p. Epub 2015 Jan 28.

Computational design and experimental characterization of peptides intended for pH-dependent membrane insertion and pore formation.

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†Department of Chemistry, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, United States.
§Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of California-San Francisco, San Francisco, California 94158, United States.


There are many opportunities to use macromolecules, such as peptides and oligonucleotides, for intracellular applications. Despite this, general methods for delivering these molecules to the cytosol in a safe and efficient manner are not available. Efforts to develop a variety of intracellular drug delivery systems such as viral vectors, lipoplexes, nanoparticles, and amphiphilic peptides have been made, but various challenges such as delivery efficiency, toxicity, and controllability remain. A central challenge is the ability to selectively perturb, not destroy, the membrane to facilitate cargo introduction. Herein, we describe our efforts to design and characterize peptides that form pores inside membranes at acidic pH, so-called pH-switchable pore formation (PSPF) peptides, as a potential means for facilitating cargo translocation through membranes. Consistent with pore formation, these peptides exhibit low-pH-triggered selective release of ATP and miRNA, but not hemoglobin, from red blood cells. Consistent with these observations, biophysical studies (tryptophan fluorescence, circular dichroism, size-exclusion chromatography, analytical ultracentrifugation, and attenuated total reflectance Fourier transformed infrared spectroscopy) show that decreased pH destabilizes the PSPF peptides in aqueous systems while promoting their membrane insertion. Together, these results suggest that reduced pH drives insertion of PSPF peptides into membranes, leading to target-specific escape through a proposed pore formation mechanism.

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