Opponent: Professor William C. Wimley, Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans, Louisiana 70112, USA
website: wimleylab.tulane.edu/. e-mail: wwimley@tulane.edu


The fundamental element of life known to man is the gene. The information contained in genes regulates all cellular functions, in health and disease. The ability to selectively alter genes or their transcript intermediates with designed molecular tools, as synthetic oligonucleotides, represents a paradigm shift in human medicine.

The full potential of oligonucleotide therapeutics is however dependent on the development of efficient delivery vectors, due to their intrinsic characteristics, as size, charge and low bioavailability. Cell-penetrating peptides are short sequences of amino acids that are capable of mediating the transport of most types of oligonucleotide therapeutics to the cell interior. It is the interaction of cell-penetrating peptides with oligonucleotides and the transport of their non-covalently formed complexes across the cellular membrane, that constitutes the main subject of this thesis.

In Paper I we studied the effects of different types of oligonucleotide cargo in the capacity of cationic and amphipathic peptides to interact with lipid membranes. We found that indeed the cargo sequesters some of the peptide’s capacity to interact with membranes. In Paper II we revealed the simultaneous interaction of different molecular and supramolecular peptide and peptide/oligonucleotide species in equilibrium, with the cellular membrane. In Paper III we developed a series of peptides with improved affinity for oligonucleotide cargo as well as enhanced endosomal release and consequently better delivery capacity. In Paper IV we investigated the effect of saturated fatty acid modifications to a cationic cell-penetrating peptide. The varying amphipathicity of the peptide correlated with the complex physicochemical properties and with its delivery efficiency.

This thesis contributes to the field with a set of characterized mechanisms and physicochemical properties for the components of the ternary system – cell-penetrating peptide, oligonucleotide and cell membrane – that should be considered for the future development of gene therapy.