The ability to alter the cytokine microenvironment has the potential to shape immune responses in many physiological settings, including the immunotherapy of tumours. We set out to develop a general approach in which cytokines could be functionally attenuated until activated. We report the development and initial characterization of fusion proteins in which human or mouse interleukin-2 (IL-2), a potent growth factor for immune cells, is joined to a specific IL-2 inhibitory binding component separated by a protease site. The rationale is that upon cleavage by a protease the cytokine is free to dissociate from the inhibitory component and becomes biologically more available. We describe the successful development of two attenuation strategies using specific binding: the first uses the mouse IL-2 receptor alpha chain as the inhibitory binding component whereas the second employs a human antibody fragment (scFv) reactive with human IL-2. We demonstrated that the fusion proteins containing a prostate-specific antigen or a matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) protease cleavage site are markedly attenuated in the intact fusion protein but had enhanced bioactivity of IL-2 in vitro when cleaved. Further, we showed that a fusion protein composed of the IL-2/IL-2 receptor alpha chain with an MMP cleavage site reduced tumour growth in vivo in a peritoneal mouse tumour model. This general strategy should be applicable to other proteases and immune modulators allowing site-specific activation of immunomodulators while reducing unwanted side-effects.
© 2011 The Authors. Immunology © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.