Photo-switchable molecules could lead to drugs controlled by light

Researchers at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine and the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, both in Spain, have developed photo-switchable molecules to control protein-protein interactions in a remote and noninvasive manner.

Content Dam Bow Online Articles 2013 06 0003 Lightpeptides Angch 2013 Big

Researchers at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB; Barcelona, Spain) and the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC; also in Barcelona) have developed photo-switchable molecules to control protein-protein interactions in a remote and noninvasive manner. The molecules will serve as a prototype to develop photo-switchable drugs, whose effects would be limited to a given region and time, thus reducing the side effects on other regions.

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Dr. Ernest Giralt of the Design, Synthesis, and Structure of Peptides lab at IRB, who led the work, synthesized two peptides (small proteins) that, when irradiated with light, change shape, thereby allowing or preventing an specific protein-protein interaction. The association of these two proteins is required for endocytosis, a process by which cells allow molecules to cross the cell membrane and enter.

“Photosensitive peptides act like traffic lights and can be made to give a green or red light for cell endocytosis. They are powerful tools for cell biology,” explains Giralt. “These molecules allow us to use focalized light like a magic wand to control biological processes and to study them,” adds physicist Pau Gorostiza, ICREA professor and head of the Nanoprobes and Nanoswitches lab at IBEC.

Content Dam Bow Online Articles 2013 06 0003 Lightpeptides Angch 2013 Big
Researchers at IRB Barcelona and IBEC have designed the first peptides regulated by light to modulate biological processes. (Image courtesy of Laura Nevola)

The researchers can see immediate applicability of these molecules to study, for example, in vitro endocytosis in cancer cells, which would allow selective inhibition of the proliferation of these cells. Also, they would also allow the study of developmental biology, where cells require endocytosis to change shape and function--processes that are orchestrated with great spatial and temporal precision. In this context, photosensitive peptides will allow the manipulation of the complex development of a multicellular organism by means of light patterns. “In view of the results, we are now working towards a general recipe to design photo-switchable inhibitory peptides that can be used to manipulate other protein-protein interactions inside cells by applying light,” they explain.

“This first breakthrough will allow us to generate the same kind of peptides for chemical-medical applications,” says Giralt. Dr. Gorostiza was the person who came up with the idea of manipulating biological and pharmacological processes through the use of light after spending five years specializing in this field at the University of California-Berkeley. The coordinator of the ERC Starting Grant project OpticalBullet and of the ERC Proof of Concept Theralight, both involving collaboration with Giralt’s lab, explains that, “the most immediate therapeutic applications we can expect is for diseases affecting superficial tissue such as the skin, the retina, and the most external mucosal membranes.”

The modification of biological processes by means of light is leading to the development of cutting-edge tools for biology and medicine and opening up new research fields, such as optopharmacology and optogenetics. The combination of drugs with external devices to control light may contribute to the development of personalized medicine in which treatments can be adapted to each patient, limiting the time given regions are treated, thus markedly reducing unwanted effects.

To work towards the development of photo-sensitive drugs, we must enhance the photochemical response of the compounds and be able to stimulate them at visible wavelengths. “Prolonged illumination with ultraviolet light is toxic for cells and is therefore a clear limitation as well has having little tissue penetration capacity,” Giralt explains as an example. Furthermore, the photo-conversion of the compounds needs to be improved as does their stability in the dark in order to be able to “on demand, design them in such a way that they relax rapidly when irradiation with light stops or that they 'remember' for hours or days the light stimulation received,” adds Gorostiza.

Full details of the work appear in the journal Angewandte Chemie; for more information, please visit


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