Inhibitory serpins. New insights into their folding, polymerization, regulation and clearance

Biochem J. 2016 Aug 1;473(15):2273-93. doi: 10.1042/BCJ20160014.


Serpins are a widely distributed family of high molecular mass protein proteinase inhibitors that can inhibit both serine and cysteine proteinases by a remarkable mechanism-based kinetic trapping of an acyl or thioacyl enzyme intermediate that involves massive conformational transformation. The trapping is based on distortion of the proteinase in the complex, with energy derived from the unique metastability of the active serpin. Serpins are the favoured inhibitors for regulation of proteinases in complex proteolytic cascades, such as are involved in blood coagulation, fibrinolysis and complement activation, by virtue of the ability to modulate their specificity and reactivity. Given their prominence as inhibitors, much work has been carried out to understand not only the mechanism of inhibition, but how it is fine-tuned, both spatially and temporally. The metastability of the active state raises the question of how serpins fold, whereas the misfolding of some serpin variants that leads to polymerization and pathologies of liver disease, emphysema and dementia makes it clinically important to understand how such polymerization might occur. Finally, since binding of serpins and their proteinase complexes, particularly plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1), to the clearance and signalling receptor LRP1 (low density lipoprotein receptor-related protein 1), may affect pathways linked to cell migration, angiogenesis, and tumour progression, it is important to understand the nature and specificity of binding. The current state of understanding of these areas is addressed here.

Keywords: allosteric regulation; heparin; metastability; polymerization; protein folding; proteinase inhibition; receptor binding; serpin.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Models, Molecular
  • Polymerization
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Folding
  • Serpins / chemistry
  • Serpins / physiology*


  • Serpins