Targeting transdifferentiated hepatic stellate cells and monitoring the hepatic fibrogenic process by means of IGF2R-specific peptides designed in silico†
The lack of accurate and easily applicable methods for the diagnosis of liver fibrosis, a disease characterized by an accumulation of the extracellular matrix released by activated hepatic stellate cells (HSCs), has been a major limitation for the clinical management of liver diseases. The identification of biomarkers specific to liver microstructure alterations, combined with a non-invasive optical imaging modality, could guide clinicians towards a therapeutic strategy. In this study, structural information of the insulin-like growth factor 2 receptor (IGF2R), an overexpressed protein on activated HSCs, was used for in silico screening of novel IGF2R-specific peptide ligands. Molecular dynamics simulations, followed by computational alanine scanning of the IGF2R/IGF2 complex, led to the identification of a putative peptide sequence containing the most relevant amino acids for the receptor–ligand interaction (IGF2 E12-C21). The Residue Scan tool, implemented in the MOE software, was then used to optimize the binding affinity of this sequence by amino acid mutations. The designed peptides and their associated scrambled sequences were fluorescently labelled and their binding affinity to LX-2 cells (model for activated human HSCs) was tested using flow cytometry and confocal microscopy. In vitro binding was verified for all sequences (KD ≤ 13.2 μM). With respect to the putative binding sequence, most mutations led to an increased affinity. All sequences have shown superior binding compared to their associated scrambled sequences. Using HPLC, all peptides were tested in vitro for their proteolytic resistance and showed a stability of ≥60% intact after 24 h at 37 °C in 50% v/v FBS. In view of their prospective diagnostic application, a comparison of binding affinity was performed in perpetuated and quiescent-like LX-2 cells. Furthermore, the IGF2R expression for different cell phenotypes was analysed by a quantitative mass spectrometric approach. Our peptides showed increased binding to the perpetuated cell state, indicating their good selectivity for the diagnostically relevant phenotype. In summary, the increased binding affinity of our peptides towards perpetuated LX-2 cells, as well as the satisfactory proteolytic stability, proves that the in silico designed sequences offer a new potential strategy for the targeting of hepatic fibrosis.
- This article is part of the themed collection: Recent Open Access Articles