Fusion of fibroblast growth factor 21 to a thermally responsive biopolymer forms an injectable depot with sustained anti-diabetic action

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Abstract

Fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21) is under investigation as a type 2 diabetes protein drug, but its efficacy is impeded by rapid in vivo clearance and by costly production methods. To improve the protein's therapeutic utility, we recombinantly expressed FGF21 as a fusion with an elastin-like polypeptide (ELP), a peptide polymer that exhibits reversible thermal phase behavior. Below a critical temperature, ELPs exist as miscible unimers, while above, they associate into a coacervate. The thermal responsiveness of ELPs is retained upon fusion to proteins, which has notable consequences for the production and in vivo delivery of FGF21. First, the ELP acts as a solubility enhancer during E. coli expression, yielding active fusion protein from the soluble cell lysate fraction and eliminating the protein refolding steps that are required for purification of FGF21 from inclusion bodies. Second, the ELP's phase transition behavior is exploited for facile chromatography-free purification of the ELP-FGF21 fusion. Third, the composition and molecular weight of the ELP are designed such that the ELP-FGF21 fusion undergoes a phase transition triggered solely by body heat, resulting in an immiscible viscous phase upon subcutaneous (s.c.) injection and thereby creating an injectable depot. Indeed, a single s.c. injection of ELP-FGF21 affords up to five days of sustained glycemic control in ob/ob mice. The ELP fusion partner massively streamlines production and purification of FGF21, while providing a controlled release method for delivery that reduces the frequency of injection, thereby enhancing the pharmacological properties of FGF21 as a protein drug to treat metabolic disease.

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