Cell-Penetrating Peptide Delivers Drugs on a Molecular Level

A team of Kennesaw State University faculty and students have developed a novel cell-penetrating peptide technology that could result in new medical treatments ranging from improved cosmetic procedures to helping in the fight against cancer, according to team leader Jonathan McMurry, KSU’s associate vice president for research.

McMurry said the researchers’ work, some of which has been published in the March issue of the Journal of Cell Science, has “thousands” of potential applications. KSU professors John Salerno, Scott Nowak and Carol Chrestensen are co-authors of the paper.

At the heart of the research is a novel cell-penetrating peptide (CPP) technology capable of carrying other molecular “cargos” directly into living cells, coupling with them and then successfully uncoupling after delivering its payload. Cargos can be therapeutic molecules like antibodies that fight against parasites and diseases, or anti-cancer proteins.

McMurry and his team developed a recombinant CPP by using a viral protein fragment fused to the human protein Calmodulin. A CPP is a short chain of amino acids capable of crossing membranes of living cells.

The prototype, called TAT-CaM, can deliver a wide array of molecular cargos to many different cell types, including human retinoblastoma cells. These are the cells that can lead to a rare form of eye cancer.

As with other CPP technologies, TAT-CaM attaches to and penetrates the targeted cells, carrying desired biomolecules with it. An important difference is that TAT-CaM releases its cargo on entering the cell’s membrane.

“In theory, this will enable things like gene therapy to be conducted more effectively than before,” said McMurry, who also is an associate professor of biochemistry in KSU’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. “TAT-CaM gets into cells faster than anything else we’ve ever seen.

“CPP technologies have been in development for years, but generally they have disappointed because, while most enter cells efficiently, their cargos remain bound to the CPP, which in turn gets trapped in undesired locations,” he continued. “They are like UPS drivers who might bring your packages to your front door, but then can’t deliver them to you. Our CPP delivers the package – and leaves it safely in your hands.”

With grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, McMurry began the research with Salerno. The work continues in memory of Salerno, who was the Neel Distinguished Chair of Biotechnology at Kennesaw State prior to his death this past December.

Salerno and McMurry founded KSU’s first incubator company, New Echota Biotechnology, and have filed for several patents for their cell-penetrating discoveries. The Georgia Research Alliance has also supported development of the business through its GRA Ventures program. The company now employs five people, including three KSU students, who are assisting in the research.

McMurry credited the Kennesaw State University Research and Services Foundation (KSURSF) with supporting the initial steps in forming the company and helping to secure patents. He hopes that other Kennesaw State students and faculty will follow his company’s lead and work with KSURSF to develop their intellectual properties and take steps to commercialize them.

“Universities are increasingly serving as platforms for start-ups. And while not many people think of KSU when they think ‘research university,’ there is a surprisingly vibrant and growing research culture here,” McMurry said.

“New Echota may be the first, but we certainly won’t be the last. The coming years will increasingly see KSU-developed technologies contribute to economic development and the betterment of humanity. I think Kennesaw State is Georgia’s next research university.”

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