Angler Peptides: Macrocyclic Conjugates Inhibit p53:MDM2/X Interactions and Activate Apoptosis in Cancer Cells

ACS Chem Biol. 2021 Feb 19;16(2):414-428. doi: 10.1021/acschembio.0c00988. Epub 2021 Feb 3.


Peptides are being developed as targeted anticancer drugs to modulate cytosolic protein-protein interactions involved in cancer progression. However, their use as therapeutics is often limited by their low cell membrane permeation and/or inability to reach cytosolic targets. Conjugation to cell penetrating peptides has been successfully used to improve the cytosolic delivery of high affinity binder peptides, but cellular uptake does not always result in modulation of the targeted pathway. To overcome this limitation, we developed "angler peptides" by conjugating KD3, a noncell permeable but potent and specific peptide inhibitor of p53:MDM2 and p53:MDMX interactions, with a set of cyclic cell-penetrating peptides. We examined their binding affinity for MDM2 and MDMX, the cell entry mechanism, and role in reactivation of the p53 pathway. We identified two angler peptides, cTAT-KD3 and cR10-KD3, able to activate the p53 pathway in cancer cells. cTAT-KD3 entered cells via endocytic pathways, escaped endosomes, and activated the p53 pathway in breast (MCF7), lung (A549), and colon (HCT116) cancer cell lines at concentrations in the range of 1-12 μM. cR10-KD3 reached the cytosol via direct membrane translocation and activated the p53 pathway at 1 μM in all the tested cell lines. Our work demonstrates that nonpermeable anticancer peptides can be delivered into the cytosol and inhibit intracellular cancer pathways when they are conjugated with stable cell penetrating peptides. The mechanistic studies suggest that direct translocation leads to less toxicity, higher cytosol delivery at lower concentrations, and lower dependencies on the membrane of the tested cell line than occurs for an endocytic pathway with endosomal escape. The angler strategy can rescue high affinity peptide binders identified from high throughput screening and convert them into targeted anticancer therapeutics, but investigation of their cellular uptake and cell death mechanisms is essential to confirming modulation of the targeted cancer pathways.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Antineoplastic Agents / chemical synthesis
  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / toxicity
  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cell-Penetrating Peptides / chemical synthesis
  • Cell-Penetrating Peptides / pharmacology
  • Cell-Penetrating Peptides / toxicity
  • Drug Design
  • Drug Screening Assays, Antitumor
  • Erythrocytes
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear / drug effects
  • Peptides, Cyclic / chemical synthesis
  • Peptides, Cyclic / pharmacology*
  • Peptides, Cyclic / toxicity
  • Protein Binding / drug effects*
  • Protein Conformation, alpha-Helical
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-mdm2 / metabolism*
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / metabolism*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Cell-Penetrating Peptides
  • Peptides, Cyclic
  • TP53 protein, human
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53
  • MDM2 protein, human
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-mdm2