Acylation of the Incretin Peptide Exendin-4 Directly Impacts Glucagon-Like Peptide-1 Receptor Signaling and Trafficking

Mol Pharmacol. 2021 Oct;100(4):319-334. doi: 10.1124/molpharm.121.000270. Epub 2021 Jul 27.


The glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor (GLP-1R) is a class B G protein-coupled receptor and mainstay therapeutic target for the treatment of type 2 diabetes and obesity. Recent reports have highlighted how biased agonism at the GLP-1R affects sustained glucose-stimulated insulin secretion through avoidance of desensitization and downregulation. A number of GLP-1R agonists (GLP-1RAs) feature a fatty acid moiety to prolong their pharmacokinetics via increased albumin binding, but the potential for these chemical changes to influence GLP-1R function has rarely been investigated beyond potency assessments for cAMP. Here, we directly compare the prototypical GLP-1RA exendin-4 with its C-terminally acylated analog, exendin-4-C16. We examine relative propensities of each ligand to recruit and activate G proteins and β-arrestins, endocytic and postendocytic trafficking profiles, and interactions with model and cellular membranes in HEK293 and HEK293T cells. Both ligands had similar cAMP potency, but exendin-4-C16 showed ∼2.5-fold bias toward G protein recruitment and a ∼60% reduction in β-arrestin-2 recruitment efficacy compared with exendin-4, as well as reduced GLP-1R endocytosis and preferential targeting toward recycling pathways. These effects were associated with reduced movement of the GLP-1R extracellular domain measured using a conformational biosensor approach and a ∼70% increase in insulin secretion in INS-1 832/3 cells. Interactions with plasma membrane lipids were enhanced by the acyl chain. Exendin-4-C16 showed extensive albumin binding and was highly effective for lowering of blood glucose in mice over at least 72 hours. Our study highlights the importance of a broad approach to the evaluation of GLP-1RA pharmacology. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Acylation is a common strategy to enhance the pharmacokinetics of peptide-based drugs. This work shows how acylation can also affect various other pharmacological parameters, including biased agonism, receptor trafficking, and interactions with the plasma membrane, which may be therapeutically important.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acylation / drug effects
  • Acylation / physiology
  • Animals
  • Exenatide / metabolism*
  • Exenatide / pharmacology
  • Glucagon-Like Peptide-1 Receptor / metabolism*
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Incretins / metabolism*
  • Incretins / pharmacology
  • Insulin Secretion / drug effects
  • Insulin Secretion / physiology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Protein Transport / drug effects
  • Protein Transport / physiology
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*


  • GLP1R protein, human
  • Glucagon-Like Peptide-1 Receptor
  • Incretins
  • Exenatide