Tumor associated macrophages (TAMs) are a major stromal component of the tumor microenvironment in several cancers. TAMs are a potential target for adjuvant cancer therapies due to their established roles in promoting proliferation of cancer cells, angiogenesis, and metastasis. We previously discovered an M2 macrophage-targeting peptide (M2pep) which was successfully used to target and deliver a pro-apoptotic KLA peptide to M2-like TAMs in a CT-26 colon carcinoma model. However, the effectiveness of in vivo TAM-targeting using M2pep is limited by its poor serum stability and low binding affinity. In this study, we synthesized M2pep derivatives with the goals of increasing serum stability and binding affinity. Serum stability evaluation of M2pepBiotin confirmed its rapid degradation attributed to exolytic cleavage from the N-terminus and endolytic cleavages at the W10/W11 and S16/K17 sites. N-terminal acetylation of M2pepBiotin protected the peptide against the exolytic degradation while W10w and K(17,18,19)k substitutions were able to effectively protect endolytic degradation at their respective cleavage sites. However, no tested amino acid changes at the W10 position resulted in both protease resistance at that site and retention of binding activity. Therefore, cyclization of M2pep was investigated. Cyclized M2pep better resisted serum degradation without compromising binding activity to M2 macrophages. During the serum stability optimization process, we also discovered that K9R and W10Y substitutions significantly enhanced binding affinity of M2pep. In an in vitro binding study of different M2pep analogs pre-incubated in mouse serum, cyclic M2pep with K9R and W10Y modifications (cyclic M2pep(RY)) retained the highest binding activity to M2 macrophages over time due to its improved serum stability. Finally, we evaluated the in vivo accumulation of sulfo-Cy5-labeled M2pep and cyclic M2pep(RY) in both the CT-26 and 4T1 breast carcinoma models. Cyclic M2pep(RY) outperformed M2pep in both tumor localization and selective accumulation in M2-like TAMs. In conclusion, we report cyclic M2pep(RY) as our lead M2pep analog with improved serum stability and M2 macrophage-binding activity. Its enhanced utility as an in vivo M2-like-TAM-targeting agent was demonstrated in two tumor models, and is expected to be applicable for other tumor models or in models of M2 macrophage-related diseases.
Keywords: M2 macrophages; M2pep; binding affinity; immunomodulation.; serum stability; targeted drug delivery.