Achieving Cell-Specific Delivery of Multiple Oligonucleotide Therapeutics with Aptamer Chimeras

Thumbnail Image




Sullenger, Bruce A

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



Current standard cancer treatments such as chemotherapeutics, and radiation therapy are nearly as likely to kill the patient as cure the cancer. Therapies that have such a narrow window of efficacy are necessary for the treatment of aggressive diseases, but safer alternatives must be created. By discovering novel therapeutics that target specific disease processes within specific diseased cells, while leaving healthy cells unaltered, we can improve the lives of millions of cancer sufferers and their families. A therapeutic's window of efficacy can be measured by the therapeutic index. For many anti-cancer therapeutics, the therapeutic index is very small, the dose of treatment that kills cancer cells and shrinks tumors is nearly the dose that causes toxicity. In cancer patients, this toxicity causes many serious conditions such as gastrointestinal distress, organ damage, and death.

Recently, the model of cancer treatment has evolved from non-specific cytotoxic agents to more selective therapeutics that target cellular processes necessary for cancer cell survival. If a therapy can be targeted to selectively bind and internalize targeted cells, its toxicity would only impact the targeted cells and healthy cells in the immediate vicinity, which would greatly reduce the toxic effects on the rest of the body. Targeting cancer cells can be done through cancer biomarkers, which are cell surface proteins, expressed exclusively, or are much more abundant on the surface of cancer cells than on somatic cells.

Advances in antibody and aptamer technology have enabled researchers to design those molecules to bind specifically to cancer cells, and deliver drugs that alter specific cellular processes. An aptamer designed to bind PSMA, a prostate cancer biomarker, only bound to a specific subset of cancer cells, and delivered a therapeutic siRNA that prevented a specific survival process from occurring. While this technology is promising, it is currently limited to targeting small subsets of cancer types. To generate an aptamer therapeutic that would have greater utility and efficacy, I have examined the properties of a nucleolin aptamer-mediated delivery system that targets multiple types of cancer cells, and delivers various oligonucleotide therapeutics.

The nucleolin aptamer targeted cancer cells by binding to membrane–associated nucleolin. Nucleolin, a conserved protein found in all eukaryotes, shuttles from the nucleus, through the cytoplasm to the cell membrane. Cancer cells express a far greater amount of membrane–associated nucleolin than somatic cells, making nucleolin an ideal cancer biomarker. The shuttling, and oligonucleotide binding attributes of the protein enable it to deliver aptamer chimeras from the cell surface to the nucleus. Therefore the nucleolin aptamer has unique access to the nuclei of cancer cells, and can deliver therapeutic oligonucleotide cargoes through nucleolin binding.

The nucleolin aptamer delivered splice–switching oligonucleotides, a form of antisense technology, improving their efficacy, and potentially increasing their therapeutic viability. The ability to deliver antisense oligonucleotides to the nuclei of cancer cells has the potential for other therapeutic possibilities including the inhibition of transcription with antisense triplexes.

The nucleolin aptamer can also deliver therapeutic aptamers. The nucleolin aptamer–β–arrestin aptamer chimera prevented the stem cell renewal phenotype necessary for leukemia progression in human patient tissue samples. The ability to effectively deliver therapeutic aptamers may lead to clinical applications for many of the aptamers that have been selected against intracellular targets including transcriptional activators.

Oligonucleotide research continues to advance our understanding of potentially therapeutic oligonucleotides. Long non–coding RNAs for example, may impact epigenetics, and transcription. Additionally, locked nucleic acids have been developed to improve binding affinity, thus increasing the efficacy of antisense oligonucleotides. In order to bring these discoveries into the clinic, they must be safely and specifically delivered to their target cells.

This work demonstrated that the nucleolin aptamer could deliver oligonucleotide therapeutics to specific cancer cells. Nucleolin aptamer chimeras have the potential to develop into safe and effective cancer therapies, thus improving the treatment options for cancer sufferers.





Kotula, Jonathan W. (2012). Achieving Cell-Specific Delivery of Multiple Oligonucleotide Therapeutics with Aptamer Chimeras. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.