Cathepsin K is the major enzyme responsible for the degradation of the protein matrix of bone and probably for the destruction of articular cartilage in rheumatoid arthritis joints. These processes occur mainly in the resorption lacuna and within the lysosomal compartment. Here, we have designed, synthesized, and evaluated new lysosomotropic (water-soluble) polymer-cathepsin K inhibitor conjugates. In particular, we characterized the relationship between conjugate structures and their activity to inhibit cathepsins K, B, L, and papain. A potent selective cathepsin K inhibitor, 1,5-bis(N-benzyloxycarbonylleucyl)carbohydrazide, was modified to 1-(N-benzyloxycarbonylleucyl)-5-(phenylalanylleucyl)carbohydrazide (I) to facilitate polymer conjugation. It was conjugated to the polymer chain termini of two water-soluble polymers (α-methoxy poly(ethylene glycol), abbreviated as mPEG-I; semitelechelic poly[N-(2-hydroxypropyl)methacrylamide], abbreviated as ST-PHPMA-I}. The conjugation of inhibitor I to N-(2- hydroxypropyl)methacrylamide (HPMA) copolymer side chains was accomplished via either a Gly-Gly spacer (PHPMA-GG-I) or with no spacer between I and the copolymer backbone (PHPMA-I). Kinetic analysis revealed that free inhibitor I possessed an apparent second-order rate constant against cathepsin K (kobs/[I] = 1.3 × 106 M-1 s-1) similar to that of unmodified 1,5-bis(Cbz-Leu) carbohydrazide, while I conjugated to the chain termini of mPEG and ST-PHPMA-COOH had slightly lower values (about 5 × 105 M-1 s-1). The kobs/[I] values for I attached to the side chains of HPMA copolymers (PHPMA-GG-I and PHPMA-I) were about 3 × 104 M-1 s-1. When tested against cathepsin L, inhibitor I and all its polymer conjugates produced kobs/[I] values 1-2 orders of magnitude less than those determined for cathepsin K, while for cathepsin B and papain, the values were 2-4 orders of magnitude lower. The ability of mPEG-I and ST-PHPMA-I to inhibit cathepsin K activity in synovial fibroblasts was also evaluated. Both polymer-bound inhibitors were internalized by endocytosis and were ultimately trafficked to the lysosomal compartment. ST-PHPMA-I was internalized faster than mPEG-I. The inhibitory activity in the synovial fibroblast assay correlated with the rate of internalization.
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