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Title: Targeting the N-myc oncoprotein using nanobody technology
Author: Kent, Lisa
ISNI:       0000 0004 7426 4607
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2018
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The myc family of oncogenic transcription factors, which includes c-myc, N-myc and L-myc, control major cellular processes such as proliferation and differentiation by integrating upstream signals and orchestrating global gene transcription. They do this largely through dimerising with Max, which together bind to enhancer (E)-box elements in DNA. Myc proteins function similarly but differ in potency and tissue distribution. For instance, N-myc is expressed predominantly during development in undifferentiated cells of the nervous system, whereas c-myc is ubiquitously expressed in all proliferating cells. Myc proteins, when deregulated, are major drivers of tumourigenesis. Myc deregulation occurs in up to 70% of all human cancers and is often associated with the most aggressive forms. For example, MYCN, the gene encoding N-myc, is amplified in 20-30% of neuroblastomas, and amplification strongly correlates with advanced stage and poor prognosis. Myc proteins are therefore considered “most wanted” targets for cancer therapy, but have long been considered undruggable mainly due to challenges in nuclear drug delivery and physically targeting myc directly given that it is a largely disordered protein that lacks discernible clefts and pockets for small molecules to inhabit. Furthermore, c-myc is important in normal tissue maintenance so the effect of its inhibition in humans is difficult to predict. However, recent in vivo studies showed that systemic myc inhibition (using the peptide pan myc inhibitor Omomyc) has mild and reversible side effects and induces tumour regression. This has alleviated concerns about the side effects that myc inhibition might have, and reinforced the promise of myc as a powerful drug target. However, the translation of Omomyc into the clinic has been hindered by poor cellular delivery. In fact, no direct myc inhibitor has yet been approved, indicating that novel approaches are needed. Moreover, inhibitors in development tend to inhibit all myc family proteins. An inhibitor that could specifically target N-myc might improve safety through bypassing c-myc inhibition. This could be used for the treatment of N-myc-driven cancers such as MYCN-amplified neuroblastoma. Nanobodies, camelid-derived single-domain antibodies, are a relatively new drug class. Whilst some are already in clinical trials for a wide range of diseases, these are specific for cell-surface or extracellular targets. However, their properties also make them ideal for use as intracellular antibodies or ‘intrabodies’. For example, they are small (just 12-15 kDa) and highly soluble due to naturally occurring hydrophobic to hydrophilic amino acid substitutions. Their small size and convex shape makes them advantageous in capturing structures in intrinsically disordered proteins and allows them to reach hidden epitopes not accessible to conventional antibodies, which could improve biological activity. Importantly, nanobodies retain the high specificities and affinities of conventional antibodies. Their small, single-domain nature also means they can be engineered with ease to modify aspects of their localisation and/or function. For example, they can be coupled to carrier molecules to facilitate cellular entry, and a nuclear localisation signal (NLS) can be added to drive them into the nucleus. Also, it was recently shown that an F-box domain could also be incorporated into nanobodies to recruit degradation machinery to its antigen, which depletes the antigen from cells via the proteasomal degradation pathway. Due to their highly advantageous properties, nanobodies raised against N-myc might overcome the barriers to targeting N-myc, providing potent and specific means of directly inhibiting N-myc therapeutically, which has not yet been achieved. In this thesis, nine unique nanobodies were raised against N-myc. These included three against the basic helix-loop-helix leucine zipper (bHLH-LZ) domain where Max dimerises, and six against the transactivation domain where numerous regulatory and cofactor proteins bind, such as the E3 ubiquitin ligase Skp2. Nanobodies against the transactivation domain were more specific for N-myc and were shown to inhibit its Skp-2-mediated ubiquitylation. This could provide novel means of eradicating tumours based on a study showing that inhibition of ubiquitylation at this domain triggers a transcriptional ‘switch’ that induces a non-canonical target gene Egr1, leading to p53-independent apoptosis. A nanobody against the bHLH-LZ (Nb C2) was shown to bind both N- and c-myc to similar magnitudes. Its affinity for N-myc bHLH-LZ was superior to that of the small molecule myc inhibitor 10058-F4, which prolongs survival in a MYCN-dependent mouse model of high-risk neuroblastoma. Nb C2 spontaneously transduced cell membranes and its coupling to a novel small molecule carrier (SMoC) enhanced its cellular uptake. Furthermore, the addition of a NLS increased its nuclear localisation. Preliminary experiments showed that Nb C2 might slow proliferation and induce apoptosis in cancer cell lines expressing c-myc, suggesting that Nb C2 might also be effective against cancers characterised by deregulated c-myc. Taken together, data generated in this thesis have revealed intriguing findings that provide a basis for the development of these nanobodies for the treatment of N-myc- and c-myc-driven cancers.
Supervisor: Laman, Heike Sponsor: Wellcome Trust
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: nanobody ; myc ; n-myc ; neuroblastoma ; cancer ; intracellular ; targeted ; nanobodies ; llama ; alpaca