Nucleic acid delivery by cell penetrating peptides derived from dengue virus capsid protein: design and mechanism of action



Cell penetrating peptides (CPPs) can be used as drug delivery systems for different therapeutic molecules. In this work two novel CPPs, pepR and pepM, designed from two domains of the dengue virus (DENV) capsid protein, were studied for their ability to deliver nucleic acids into cells as non-covalently bound cargo. Translocation studies were performed by confocal microscopy in HepG2, BHK and HEK cell lineages, astrocytes and peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Combined studies in HepG2 cells, astrocytes and BHK cells, at 4 and 37 °C or using specific endocytosis inhibitors, revealed that pepR and pepM use distinct internalization routes: pepM translocates lipid membranes directly, while pepR uses an endocytic pathway. To confirm these results, a methodology was developed to monitor the translocation kinetics of both peptides by real-time flow cytometry. Kinetic constants were determined, and the amount of nucleic acids delivered was estimated. Additional studies were performed in order to understand the molecular bases of the peptide-mediated translocation. Peptide–nucleic acid and peptide–lipid membrane interactions were studied quantitatively based on the intrinsic fluorescence of the peptides. pepR and pepM bound ssDNA to the same extent. Partition studies revealed that both peptides bind preferentially to anionic lipid membranes, adopting an α-helical conformation. However, fluorescence quenching studies suggest that pepM is deeply inserted into the lipid bilayer, in contrast with pepR. Moreover, only pepM is able to promote the fusion and aggregation of vesicles composed of zwitterionic lipids. Altogether, the results show that DENV capsid protein derived peptides serve as good templates for novel CPP-based nucleic acid delivery strategies, defining different routes for cell entry.