Tunable degradation of maleimide-thiol adducts in reducing environments

Bioconjug Chem. 2011 Oct 19;22(10):1946-53. doi: 10.1021/bc200148v. Epub 2011 Sep 26.


Addition chemistries are widely used in preparing biological conjugates, and in particular, maleimide-thiol adducts have been widely employed. Here, we show that the resulting succinimide thioether formed by the Michael-type addition of thiols to N-ethylmaleimide (NEM), generally accepted as stable, undergoes retro and exchange reactions in the presence of other thiol compounds at physiological pH and temperature, offering a novel strategy for controlled release. Model studies ((1)H NMR, HPLC) of NEM conjugated to 4-mercaptophenylacetic acid (MPA), N-acetylcysteine, or 3-mercaptopropionic acid (MP) incubated with glutathione showed half-lives of conversion from 20 to 80 h, with extents of conversion from 20% to 90% for MPA and N-acetylcysteine conjugates. After ring-opening, the resultant succinimide thioether did not show retro and exchange reactions. The kinetics of the retro reactions and extent of exchange can be modulated by the Michael donor's reactivity; therefore, the degradation of maleimide-thiol adducts could be tuned for controlled release of drugs or degradation of materials at time scales different than those currently possible via disulfide-mediated release. Such approaches may find a new niche for controlled release in reducing environments relevant in chemotherapy and subcellular trafficking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Kinetics
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Maleimides / chemistry*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds / chemistry*


  • Maleimides
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds
  • maleimide