Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

Engineered Polymer–Transferrin Conjugates as Self-Assembling Targeted Drug Delivery Systems

Makwana, Hiteshri; Mastrotto, Francesca; Magnusson, Johannes P.; Sleep, Darrell; Hay, Joanna; Nicholls, Karl J; Allen, Stephanie; Alexander, Cameron


Hiteshri Makwana

Francesca Mastrotto

Johannes P. Magnusson

Darrell Sleep

Joanna Hay

Karl J Nicholls

Professor of Pharmaceutical Biophysics


Polymer–protein conjugates can be engineered to self-assemble into discrete and well-defined drug delivery systems, which combine the advantages of receptor targeting and controlled drug release. We designed specific conjugates of the iron-binding and transport protein, transferrin (Tf), to combine the advantages of this serum-stable protein as a targeting agent for cancer cells with self-assembling polymers to act as carriers of cytotoxic drugs. Tf variants were expressed with cysteine residues at sites spanning different regions of the protein surface, and the polymer conjugates grown from these variants were compared with polymer conjugates grown from nonselectively derivatized sites on native Tf. The resulting synthetic biopolymer hybrids were evaluated for self-assembly properties, size and topology, ability to carry an anticancer drug (paclitaxel), and cytotoxicity with and without a drug payload in a representative human colon cancer cell line. The results demonstrated that the engineered Tf variant polymer conjugates formed better-defined self-assembled nanoparticles than the nonselectively derivatized conjugates and showed greater efficacy in paclitaxel delivery. A polymer conjugate grown from a specific Tf variant, S415C was found to be taken up rapidly into cancer cells expressing the Tf-receptor, and, while tolerated well by cells in the absence of drugs, was as cytotoxic as free paclitaxel, when loaded with the drug. Importantly, the S415C conjugate polymer was not the most active variant in Tf-receptor binding, suggesting that the nanoscale self-assembly of the polymer–protein hybrid is also a key factor in delivery efficacy. The data overall suggest new design rules for polymer–biopolymer hybrids and therapeutic delivery systems, which include engineering specific residues for conjugation that mediate nanoscale assembly as well as control of ligand–receptor interactions to target specific cell types.


Makwana, H., Mastrotto, F., Magnusson, J. P., Sleep, D., Hay, J., Nicholls, K. J., …Alexander, C. (2017). Engineered Polymer–Transferrin Conjugates as Self-Assembling Targeted Drug Delivery Systems. Biomacromolecules, 18(5), 1532-1543.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Mar 28, 2017
Online Publication Date Apr 11, 2017
Publication Date May 8, 2017
Deposit Date Aug 27, 2019
Journal Biomacromolecules
Print ISSN 1525-7797
Electronic ISSN 1526-4602
Publisher American Chemical Society
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 18
Issue 5
Pages 1532-1543
Public URL
Publisher URL