Nanoparticle-based transcription factor mimics

Biologists have been enhancing expression of specific genes with plasmids and viruses for decades, which has been essential to uncovering the function of numerous genes and the relationships among the proteins they encode. However, tools that allow enhancement of expression of endogenous genes at the transcriptional level could be a powerful complement to these strategies. Many chemical biologists have made enormous progress developing molecular tools for this purpose; recent work by a group at Rutgers suggests how nanotechnology might allow application of this strategy in living organisms, and perhaps one day in patients.

In a paper published in ACS Nano, researchers led by KiBum Lee synthesized gold nanoparticles bearing synthetic or shortened versions of the three essential components of transcription factors (TFs), the proteins that “turn on” expression of specific genes in cells. Specifically, polyamides previously designed to bind to a specific promoter sequence, transactivation peptides, and nuclear localization peptides were conjugated to the nanoparticle surface. These nanoparticles enhanced expression of both a reporter plasmid (by ~15-fold) and several endogenous genes (by up to 65%). This enhancement is much greater than that possible using previous constructs lacking nuclear localization sequences; the team incorporated a high proportion of those peptides to ensure efficient delivery to the nucleus.

Nanoscript, a synthetic transciption factor
Diagram of the synthetic TF mimic (termed NanoScript). Decorated particles are ~35 nm in diameter. Letters are amino acid sequences; Py-Im, N-methylpyrrole-N-methylimidazole.

These nanoparticles offer an alternative to delivering protein TFs, which remains extremely challenging despite considerable effort towards the development of delivery systems that transport cargo into cells. Among other barriers to the use of native TFs, incorporating them into polymeric or lipid-based carriers often alters their shape, which would likely reduce their function.

While the group suggests future generations of these nanoparticles might one day be used to treat diseases caused by defects in TF genes, many questions remain. First, the duration of gene expression enhancement is not known; the study only assesses effects at 48 h post-administration. Further, whether gold is the best material for the core remains unclear, as its non-biodegradability means the particles would likely accumulate in the liver over time; synthetic TFs with biodegradable cores might also be considered.

Patel S et al., NanoScript: a nanoparticle-based artificial transcription factor for effective gene regulation, ACS Nano 2014; published online Sep 3.