Phase I/II cancer gene therapy trials of the Escherichia coli nitroreductase NfsB in partnership with the prodrug CB1954 [5-(aziridin-1-yl)-2,4-dinitrobenzamide] have indicated that CB1954 toxicity is dose-limiting at concentrations far below the enzyme K(M). Here we report that the flavin reductase FRase I from Vibrio fischeri is also a CB1954 nitroreductase, which has a substantially lower apparent K(M) than E. coli NfsB. To enhance the activity of FRase I with CB1954 we used targeted mutagenesis and an E. coli SOS reporter strain to engineer single- and multi-residue variants that possess a substantially reduced apparent K(M) and an increased k(cat)/K(M) relative to the wild type enzyme. In a bacteria-delivered model for enzyme prodrug therapy, the engineered FRase I variants were able to kill human colon carcinoma (HCT-116) cells at significantly lower CB1954 concentrations than wild type FRase I or E. coli NfsB.
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