Background: Cystine-knot miniproteins, also known as knottins, have shown great potential as molecular scaffolds for the development of targeted therapeutics and diagnostic agents. For this purpose, previous protein engineering efforts have focused on knottins based on the Ecballium elaterium trypsin inhibitor (EETI) from squash seeds, the Agouti-related protein (AgRP) neuropeptide from mammals, or the Kalata B1 uterotonic peptide from plants. Here, we demonstrate that Agatoxin (AgTx), an ion channel inhibitor found in spider venom, can be used as a molecular scaffold to engineer knottins that bind with high-affinity to a tumor-associated integrin receptor. Methodology/Principal Findings: We used a rational loop-grafting approach to engineer AgTx variants that bound to α β integrin with affinities in the low nM range. We showed that a disulfide-constrained loop from AgRP, a structurally-related knottin, can be substituted into AgTx to confer its high affinity binding properties. In parallel, we identified amino acid mutations required for efficient in vitro folding of engineered integrin-binding AgTx variants. Molecular imaging was used to evaluate in vivo tumor targeting and biodistribution of an engineered AgTx knottin compared to integrin-binding knottins based on AgRP and EETI. Knottin peptides were chemically synthesized and conjugated to a near-infrared fluorescent dye. Integrin-binding AgTx, AgRP, and EETI knottins all generated high tumor imaging contrast in U87MG glioblastoma xenograft models. Interestingly, EETI-based knottins generated significantly lower non-specific kidney imaging signals compared to AgTx and AgRP-based knottins. Conclusions/Significance: In this study, we demonstrate that AgTx, a knottin from spider venom, can be engineered to bind with high affinity to a tumor-associated receptor target. This work validates AgTx as a viable molecular scaffold for protein engineering, and further demonstrates the promise of using tumor-targeting knottins as probes for in vivo molecular imaging.
© 2013 Moore et al.
Moore, Sarah J.; Leung, Cheuk Lun; Norton, Heidi K.; and Cochran, Jennifer R., "Engineering Agatoxin, a Cystine-Knot Peptide from Spider Venom, as a Molecular Probe for In Vivo Tumor Imaging" (2013). Engineering: Faculty Publications, Smith College, Northampton, MA.