Opponent: Docent Hanne Mørck Nielsen, Department of Pharmacy, University of Copenhagen

Abstract

Genes are the major regulators of biological processes in every living thing. Problems with gene regulation can cause serious problems for the organism; for example, most cancers have some kind of genetic component. Regulation of biological processes using oligonucleotides can potentially be a therapy for any ailment, not just cancer. The problem so far has been that the targets for oligonucleotide-based therapies all reside on the inside of cells, because the cellular plasma membrane is normally impermeable to large and charged molecules (such as oligonucleotides) a delivery method is needed. Cell-penetrating peptides are a class of carrier molecules that are able to induce the cellular membrane into taking them and their cargo molecules into the cells. Understanding how and why cell-penetrating peptides work is one of the first and most important steps towards improving them to the point where they become useful as carriers for oligonucleotide-based therapies. This thesis is comprised of four scientific papers that are steps toward finding an uptake mechanism for cell-penetrating peptides that have been non-covalently complexed with oligonucleotides.

In Paper I, we show that the scavenger receptors are responsible for uptake of the cell-penetrating peptide PepFect14 in complex with a short single-stranded oligonucleotide. Paper II expands upon this first finding and shows that the same receptors are key players in the uptake of several other cell-penetrating peptides that have been complexed with either, long double-stranded plasmid DNA or short double-stranded RNA. Paper III improves the luciferase-based assay for short oligonucleotide delivery by increasing the throughput 4-fold and reducing the cost by 95 %. The fourth manuscript uses the assay developed in paper III to investigate the effects on cell-penetrating peptide-mediated delivery by each of the constituents of a 264-member library of ligands for G-protein coupled receptors. We identify three ligands that dose-dependently increase the luciferase expression compared to control cells. These three ligands are one positive-, one negative allosteric modulator of metabotropic glutamate receptor 5 and one antagonist of histamine receptor 3.