Receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) are major players in signal transduction, regulating cellular activities in both normal regeneration and malignancy. Thus, many RTKs, c-Kit among them, play key roles in the function of both normal and neoplastic cells, and as such constitute attractive targets for therapeutic intervention. We thus sought to manipulate the self-association of stem cell factor (SCF), the cognate ligand of c-Kit, and hence its suboptimal affinity and activation potency for c-Kit. To this end, we used directed evolution to engineer SCF variants having different c-Kit activation potencies. Our yeast-displayed SCF mutant (SCFM) library screens identified altered dimerization potential and increased affinity for c-Kit by specific SCF-variants. We demonstrated the delicate balance between SCF homo-dimerization, c-Kit binding, and agonistic potencies by structural studies, in vitro binding assays and a functional angiogenesis assay. Importantly, our findings showed that a monomeric SCF variant exhibited superior agonistic potency vs. the wild-type SCF protein and vs. other high-affinity dimeric SCF variants. Our data showed that action of the monomeric ligands in binding to the RTK monomers and inducing receptor dimerization and hence activation was superior to that of the wild-type dimeric ligand, which has a higher affinity to RTK dimers but a lower activation potential. The findings of this study on the binding and c-Kit activation of engineered SCF variants thus provides insights into the structure-function dynamics of ligands and RTKs.
Keywords: agonistic activity; angiogenesis; binding affinity; directed evolution; protein engineering; protein-protein interactions; receptor tyrosine kinases.