The allosteric modulation of complement C5 by knob domain peptides

Elife. 2021 Feb 11;10:e63586. doi: 10.7554/eLife.63586.


Bovines have evolved a subset of antibodies with ultra-long heavy chain complementarity determining regions that harbour cysteine-rich knob domains. To produce high-affinity peptides, we previously isolated autonomous 3-6 kDa knob domains from bovine antibodies. Here, we show that binding of four knob domain peptides elicits a range of effects on the clinically validated drug target complement C5. Allosteric mechanisms predominated, with one peptide selectively inhibiting C5 cleavage by the alternative pathway C5 convertase, revealing a targetable mechanistic difference between the classical and alternative pathway C5 convertases. Taking a hybrid biophysical approach, we present C5-knob domain co-crystal structures and, by solution methods, observed allosteric effects propagating >50 Å from the binding sites. This study expands the therapeutic scope of C5, presents new inhibitors, and introduces knob domains as new, low molecular weight antibody fragments, with therapeutic potential.

Keywords: bovine immunoglobulin; complement C5; human; immunology; inflammation; knob-domain peptides; molecular biophysics; structural biology.

Plain Language Summary

Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system that can selectively bind to other molecules and modify their behaviour. Cows are highly equipped at fighting-off disease-causing microbes due to the unique shape of some of their antibodies. Unlike other jawed vertebrates, cows’ antibodies contain an ultra-long loop region that contains a ‘knob domain’ which sticks out from the rest of the antibody. Recent research has shown that when detached, the knob domain behaves like an antibody fragment, and can independently bind to a range of different proteins. Antibody fragments are commonly developed in the laboratory to target proteins associated with certain diseases, such as arthritis and cancer. But it was unclear whether the knob domains from cows’ antibodies could also have therapeutic potential. To investigate this, Macpherson et al. studied how knob domains attach to complement C5, a protein in the inflammatory pathway which is a drug target for various diseases, including severe COVID-19. The experiments identified various knob domains that bind to complement C5 and inhibits its activity by altering its structure or movement. Further tests studying the structure of these interactions, led to the discovery of a common mechanism by which inhibitors can modify the behaviour of this inflammatory protein. Complement C5 is involved in numerous molecular pathways in the immune system, which means many of the drugs developed to inhibit its activity can also leave patients vulnerable to infection. However, one of the knob domains identified by Macpherson et al. was found to reduce the activity of complement C5 in some pathways, whilst leaving other pathways intact. This could potentially reduce the risk of bacterial infections which sometimes arise following treatment with these types of inhibitors. These findings highlight a new approach for developing drug inhibitors for complement C5. Furthermore, the ability of knob domains to bind to multiple sites of complement C5 suggests that this fragment could be used to target proteins associated with other diseases.

MeSH terms

  • Allosteric Regulation / drug effects*
  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Complement C5 / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Complement C5 / chemistry
  • Complement C5 / metabolism
  • Drug Discovery*
  • Molecular Docking Simulation
  • Peptides / chemistry*
  • Peptides / pharmacology*
  • Protein Conformation / drug effects


  • Complement C5
  • Peptides

Grant support

No external funding was received for this work.