Cancer has become the leading cause of death in the developed world and has remained one of the most difficult diseases to treat. One of the difficulties in treating cancer is that conventional chemotherapies often have unacceptable toxicities toward normal cells at the doses required to kill tumor cells. Thus, the demand for new and improved tumor specific therapeutics for the treatment of cancer remains high. Alterations to cellular metabolism constitute a nearly universal feature of many types of cancer cells. In particular, many tumors exhibit deficiencies in one or more amino acid synthesis or salvage pathways forcing a reliance on the extracellular pool of these amino acids to satisfy protein biosynthesis demands. Therefore, one treatment modality that satisfies the objective of developing cancer cell-selective therapeutics is the systemic depletion of that tumor-essential amino acid, which can result in tumor apoptosis with minimal side effects to normal cells. While this strategy was initially suggested over 50 years ago, it has been recently experiencing a renaissance owing to advances in protein engineering technology, and more sophisticated approaches to studying the metabolic differences between tumorigenic and normal cells. Dietary restriction is typically not sufficient to achieve a therapeutically relevant level of amino acid depletion for cancer treatment. Therefore, intravenous administration of enzymes is used to mediate the degradation of such amino acids for therapeutic purposes. Unfortunately, the human genome does not encode enzymes with the requisite catalytic or pharmacological properties necessary for therapeutic purposes. The use of heterologous enzymes has been explored extensively both in animal studies and in clinical trials. However, heterologous enzymes are immunogenic and elicit adverse responses ranging from anaphylactic shock to antibody-mediated enzyme inactivation, and therefore have had limited utility. The one notable exception is Escherichia colil-asparaginase II (EcAII), which has been FDA-approved for the treatment of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The use of engineered human enzymes, to which natural tolerance is likely to prevent recognition by the adaptive immune system, offers a novel approach for capitalizing on the promising strategy of systemic depletion of tumor-essential amino acids. In this work, we review several strategies that we have developed to: (i) reduce the immunogenicity of a nonhuman enzyme, (ii) engineer human enzymes for novel catalytic specificities, and (iii) improve the pharmacological characteristics of a human enzyme that exhibits the requisite substrate specificity for amino acid degradation but exhibits low activity and stability under physiological conditions.
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