Optimizing the anti-tumor efficacy of protein-drug conjugates by engineering the molecular size and half-life

J Control Release. 2020 Nov 10;327:186-197. doi: 10.1016/j.jconrel.2020.08.004. Epub 2020 Aug 6.


Despite some approvals of antibody-drug conjugates for cancer therapy, their clinical success rate is unsatisfactory because of very small therapeutic windows, influenced by on-target and off-target toxicities of conjugate and liberated toxin. Additional formats with systematically investigated molecular parameters must therefore be explored to increase their therapeutic window. Here we focused on the effective molecular weight. To generate conjugates with exactly defined drug loads and tunable pharmacokinetics, we used Designed Ankyrin Repeat Proteins (DARPins), fused to unstructured polypeptides of different lengths, to produce proteins with any desired half-life, to identify those with the best efficacy. We generated an EpCAM-targeting DARPin-MMAF conjugate, fused to PAS or XTEN of different lengths, and a matched series of controls of a non-binding DARPin to account for the enhanced permeability and retention (EPR) effect, covering half-lives of minutes to 20.6 h in mice. All conjugates were produced at high purity, and demonstrated high specificity and cytotoxicity in human tumor cell cultures, with IC50 values in the low nM range, independent of the polypeptide type and length. Due to their more facile purification, the PASylated conjugates were tested in nude mice bearing HT29 tumor xenografts. Independent of their size, all PASylated conjugates were very well tolerated after repeated systemic administration of 300 nmol/kg. We found that the conjugates with intermediate size and half-life showed the strongest anti-tumor effects, and deduced that this effect is a compromise of serum half-life and diffusion within the tumor, as on-rates and affinities are essentially identical, with extravasation playing only a very minor role.

Keywords: DARPin-drug conjugates; Half-life extension; PASylation; Tumor targeting; XTENylation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Half-Life
  • Mice
  • Mice, Nude
  • Neoplasms*
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations*
  • Proteins


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Proteins