Simultaneous crosslinking of CD20 and CD38 receptors by drug-free macromolecular therapeutics enhances B cell apoptosis in vitro and in vivo

J Control Release. 2022 Oct;350:584-599. doi: 10.1016/j.jconrel.2022.08.045. Epub 2022 Sep 5.


Drug-Free Macromolecular Therapeutics (DFMT) is a new paradigm in macromolecular therapeutics that induces apoptosis in target cells by crosslinking receptors without the need of low molecular weight drugs. Programmed cell death is initiated via a biomimetic receptor crosslinking strategy using a two-step approach: i) recognition of cell surface antigen by a morpholino oligonucleotide-modified antibody Fab' fragment (Fab'-MORF1), ii) followed by crosslinking with a multivalent effector motif - human serum albumin (HSA) grafted with multiple complementary morpholino oligonucleotides (HSA-(MORF2)x). This approach is effective in vitro, in vivo, and ex vivo on cells from patients diagnosed with various B cell malignancies. We have previously demonstrated DFMT can be applied to crosslink CD20 and CD38 receptors to successfully initiate apoptosis. Herein, we show simultaneous engagement, and subsequent crosslinking of both targets ("heteroreceptor crosslinking"), can further enhance the apoptosis induction capacity of this system. To accomplish this, we incubated Raji (CD20+; CD38+) cells simultaneously with anti-CD20 and anti-CD38 Fab'-MORF1 conjugates, followed by addition of the macromolecular crosslinker, HSA-(MORF2)x to co-cluster the bound receptors. Fab' fragments from Rituximab and Obinutuzumab were employed in the synthesis of anti-CD20 bispecific engagers (Fab'RTX-MORF1 and Fab'OBN-MORF1), whereas Fab' fragments from Daratumumab and Isatuximab (Fab'DARA-MORF1 and Fab'ISA-MORF1) targeted CD38. All heteroreceptor crosslinking DFMT combinations demonstrated potent apoptosis induction and exhibited synergistic effects as determined by Chou-Talalay combination index studies (CI < 1). In vitro fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) experiments confirmed the co-clustering of the two receptors on the cell surface in response to the combination treatment. The source of this synergistic therapeutic effect was further explored by evaluating the effect of combination DFMT on key apoptosis signaling events such as mitochondrial depolarization, caspase activation, lysosomal enlargement, and homotypic cell adhesion. Finally, a xenograft mouse model of CD20+/CD38+ Non Hodgkin lymphoma was employed to demonstrate in vivo the enhanced efficacy of the heteroreceptor-crosslinking DFMT design versus single-target systems.

Keywords: CD20 and CD38; Drug-free macromolecular therapeutics; Human serum albumin; Lymphoma; Morpholino oligonucleotides; Multiple myeloma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, CD20*
  • Apoptosis*
  • Caspases / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin Fab Fragments
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Mice
  • Morpholinos
  • Rituximab / pharmacology
  • Serum Albumin, Human


  • Antigens, CD20
  • Immunoglobulin Fab Fragments
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Morpholinos
  • Rituximab
  • Caspases
  • Serum Albumin, Human