Mechanistic insights into the pH-dependent membrane peptide ATRAM

Vanessa P. Nguyen, Loganathan Palanikumar, Stephen J. Kennel, Daiane S. Alves, Yujie Ye, Jonathan S. Wall, Mazin Magzoub, Francisco N. Barrera

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


pH-responsive peptides are promising therapeutic molecules that can specifically target the plasma membrane in the acidified extracellular medium that bathes cells in tumors. We designed the acidity-triggered rational membrane (ATRAM) peptide to have a pH-responsive membrane interaction. At physiological pH, ATRAM binds to the membrane surface in a largely unstructured conformation, while in acidic conditions it inserts into lipid bilayers forming a transmembrane helix. However, the molecular mechanism ATRAM uses to target and insert into tumor cells remains poorly understood. Here, we determined that ATRAM inserts into cancer cells with a preferential membrane orientation, where the C-terminus of the peptide traverses the plasma membrane and explores the cytoplasm. Using biophysical techniques, we determined that the membrane interaction of ATRAM is contingent on the concentration of the peptide. Kinetic studies showed that membrane insertion occurs in at least three steps, where only the first step was affected by the membrane density of ATRAM. These observations, combined with membrane binding and leakage data, indicate that the interaction of ATRAM with lipid membranes is dependent on its oligomerization state. SPECT/CT imaging in mice revealed that ATRAM accumulates in the blood pool, where it has a prolonged circulation time (> 4 h). Since fast peptide clearance and degradation in circulation are major problems for clinical development, we studied the mechanism ATRAM uses to remain in the blood stream. Using binding and transfer assays, we determined that ATRAM binds reversibly to human serum albumin. We propose that ATRAM uses albumin as a carrier in the blood stream to evade clearance and proteolysis before interacting with the plasma membrane of cancer cells. We also show that ATRAM is able to be deliver liposomes to cells in a pH dependent way. Our data highlight the potential of ATRAM as a specific therapeutic agent for diseases that lead to acidic tissues, including cancer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)142-153
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Controlled Release
StatePublished - Mar 28 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmaceutical Science


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