Receptor-mediated activation of a proinsulin-transferrin fusion protein in hepatoma cells

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A proinsulin-transferrin (ProINS-Tf) recombinant fusion protein was designed and characterized for the sustained release of an active form of insulin (INS) by hepatoma cells. During incubation with H4IIE hepatoma cells, a gradual decline of ProINS-Tf concentration, with a concomitant generation of the immuno-reactive insulin-transferrin (irINS-Tf), was detected in the culture medium by using INS- or proinsulin (ProINS)-specific radioimmunoassay (RIA) system. Further studies indicated that the conversion of ProINS-Tf to irINS-Tf was a transferrin receptor (TfR) mediated process that was pH-sensitive, and temperature- and microtubule-dependent. These results suggest that the conversion occurred during the slow recycling route of transferrin (Tf)-TfR pathway, possibly processed by proteases in the slow recycling compartments juxtaposed to the trans-Golgi network (TGN). ProINS-Tf exhibited little activity in the short-term promotion of glucose uptake in adipocytes, indicating that it was in an inactive form similar to ProINS. Stimulation of Akt phosphorylation by ProINS-Tf was detected only after prolonged incubation with H4IIE cells. On the other hand, ProINS-Tf pre-incubated with H4IIE cells for 24 h acquired an immediate activity of stimulating Akt phosphorylation. Furthermore, ProINS-Tf elicited a strong activity in the inhibition of glucose production following 24 h incubation with H4IIE cells. Based on these findings, we conclude that the Tf–TfR endocytosis and recycling pathway enables the conversion and release of ProINS-Tf in an active form of irINS-Tf. Results from this study suggest that the Tf–TfR pathway can be exploited for the design of prohormone-Tf fusion proteins as protein prodrugs for their sustained and targeted activation.Graphical abstract

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