New methods for developing (bi)cyclic peptides by phage display

Cyclic peptide ligands are a promising molecular format for the development of therapeutics. They combine some of the advantages of large protein therapeutics (high affinity and specificity) and of small molecule drugs (accessibility to chemical synthesis and low immunogenicity). With phage display, large combinatorial libraries of more than one billion mono- and polycyclic peptides can be developed and screened against virtually any target. During phage affinity selections, the physical link between phenotype (encoded peptide) and genotype (phage DNA) allows the identification of enriched peptide binders by sequencing of the phage vector DNA. Based on these concepts, our laboratory has established a robust chemistry in which phage displayed peptides containing two or three cysteines are cyclized or bi-cyclized with thiol-reactive linkers. This procedure has been generally applied for the isolation of potent and selective (bi)cyclic peptide ligands with therapeutic potential. The isolation of binders with optimal properties is highly dependent on the possibility to generate (bi)cyclic peptide libraries with high structural diversity and on the ability to thoroughly decode the phage selection output. In my PhD work, I developed new methods to generate large and structurally diverse libraries and to decode more efficiently phage selected peptides. In my first project, I explore the cyclization of peptides with two chemical bridges as a method to provide rapid access to phage-encoded libraries with high scaffold diversity. To this end, a range of twelve structurally diverse chemicals were tested for thiol-reactivity and phage compatibility. Subsequently, peptide libraries of the format XCXnCXnCX (X = random amino acid, C = cysteine, n = 3 or 4) were cyclized with six of these chemical linkers and panned against the protease plasma kallikrein. The selection yielded inhibitors with remarkable affinity (sub-nM KI), target selectivity (>1000-fold) and proteolytic stability (t1/2 in plasma > 3 days) despite a relatively small molecular mass (  1200 Da). In the second project, I developed phage-encoded libraries of small cyclic peptides in order to identify ligands that have the potential to be orally absorbed. A major challenge for the generation of such library is the usually low diversity of compounds due to the limited number of amino acids. In this work, we addressed this limitation by taking advantage of a recently discovered peptide cyclization reaction in which the thiol of a cysteine is ligated with the N-terminal amino group using a chemical reagent. We applied this strategies to two phage-encoded peptide libraries of four and five amino acids (XXXC and XXXXC) that were cyclized with eight chemical linkers yielding a collection of more than 1.3 million compounds. Panning the libraries against the two disease targets plasma kallikrein and coagulation factor XIa yielded ligands with single-digit micromolar affinity. In a third project, I developed a strategy to bypass the bacterial infection step in phage display. Bacterial infection is usually crucial for the propagation and identification of enriched clones by DNA sequencing. However, mutations or chemical modifications of the phage coat proteins, sometimes lead to decreased infection rates and therefore compromise the entire procedure. Consequently, there is an interest for developing methods in which this step could be completely omitted.


  • Thesis submitted - Forthcoming publication

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