Understanding the Critical Step for the Cellular Toxicity of Protein Oligomers.

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Life Sciences


Protein molecules have evolved to attain functional and soluble states under normal and physiological conditions. In some cases, however, some protein molecules are unable to remain stable as monomers and consequently associate into protein aggregates having a fibrilar nature. These aggregates, designated as amyloids, have a large biological relevance and are in fact considered attractive structures for targeting new generations of biomaterials. Early states of amyloids, namely protein oligomers, are important biological targets as they can be inherently toxic. Understanding the bases of the oligomers toxicity is essential to develop the next generation of biomaterials as well as to understand the nature of some aberrant diseases that are connected to the amyloid formation, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and type II diabetes.

An crucial step that defines the biological properties of protein oligomers is the interaction with the cell membrane. This interaction represents the key event in the toxicity of protein oligomers. Understanding the molecular basis of the interaction with the membrane will provide a significant step forward in our understanding of the biology of protein oligomers. Many aspects of this interaction are currently unknown. What makes a prefibrilar oligomer toxic? Why only some protein oligomers are able to penetrate the membrane? How the membrane properties dictate the interplay with protein oligomers?

The present project will provide a novel and innovative platform of experiments and theory to investigate in detail on the structural nature of prefibrilar protein oligomers. The project will shed light in the selective interaction with phospholipid membranes that distinguishes between toxic and non-toxic oligomers. To this aim, the research will combine cutting-edge experiments of nuclear magnetic resonance with advanced molecular computation. Thus, in addition to the specific biological target of tackling the molecular origins of the oligomers toxicity, this research will extend our ability to study complex molecular mechanisms, with a large number of applications ranging from structural biology to synthetic and system biology and to material sciences.

Technical Summary

The assembly of proteins and peptides into fibrilar amyloids is a highly promising route to define a new generation of biomaterials. The inherent toxicity of some these aggregates, however, represents a major limiting factor. Understanding the bases of this toxicity, which also plays a role in disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, is a major scientific challenge. Several evidences have shown that prefibrilar protein oligomers are the most toxic amyloidogenic species. It is also well established that the interaction with the cell membrane is the key step for oligomers toxicity.

The characterisation of the structures and interactions of the pre-fibrillar oligomers is therefore a top scientific priority for biosciences. This goal currently remains elusive, mainly because of the difficulties of standard approaches of structural investigation to study such transient and dynamical molecular interactions.

I propose to unveil the molecular bases of the cellular toxicity of prefibrilar protein oligomers by characterising and compare the structural properties of toxic and non-toxic HypF-N oligomers in view of their selective interaction with biological membranes. We will achieve this goal by using a combination of solution and solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and advanced tools computational biology. Biophysical and cellular studies will be used to validate our structural results. The collected preliminary data suggest that the research plan is optimally suited for achieving this top scientific goal.

Planned Impact

The outcomes of this research impact both the academic sector and the industry as well as both basic and applied sciences. The project will provide a key knowlege for design the next generation of biomaterials based on amyloids. Moreover, the mechanisms of protein oligomers toxicity are important also in the research on amyloid disorders, including Alzheimer's Parkinson's and Diabetes TypeII. This will enhance dramatically our ability to study key molecular processes that are relevant to both academia and industry and extend the applicability of current spectroscopic methods to more complex processes.

INDUSTRIAL BENEFICIARIES: The project is likely to provide a significant impact to industrial research by advancing the use of NMR spectroscopy. Beneficiaries include biotechnological and pharma industry. A key area for applied sciences is the exploitation of new biomaterials based on protein fibrils. In order to develop such biotechnologies, it is necessary understanding and controlling the processes by which protein oligomers elicit cellular toxicity. Additional beneficiaries include those pharmaceutical companies working at the definition of therapeutic approaches to combat amyloid diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. These will benefit by the knowledge and data produced in this project. More broadly, the interdisciplinary approaches here proposed will enhance our ability to characterise the mechanisms of heterogeneous biological processes, with key impact on many bio-industrial areas.

SUSTAINABILITY CHALLENGES: The definition of new biomaterials with novel mechanical, chemical and biological properties is a key target for sustainability. By advancing the understanding of the toxicity of some of these oligomers the project will boost this research of new environmentally friendly materials based on protein amyloids.

DISSEMINATION: We will make every effort to ensure that research is disseminated widely to the research community by the Open Access publication in high-impact journals, presentation at international research meetings and the development of new collaborations. Furthermore, protocols and algorithms developed for the analysis of complex NMR data will be made available through the PI website (http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/people/a.de-simon) and the Collaborative Computing project for NMR (CCPN: http://www.ccpn.ac.uk/ccpn).
Where possible, we will also make our findings available to the wider public. Presentations explaining how NMR spectroscopy assists in the drug development, biotechnology and scientific discovery will be made School-oriented presentations and Schools Open Days. The press offices at Imperial will assist in disseminating discoveries via the popular science press and other media formats.

TRAINING: In the proposed research we will employ and develop state-of-the-art methods of NMR spectroscopy to contribute in the wide area of structural biology. This provides an excellent platform to enhance training of PDRAs, PhDs as well as undergraduate students at the interface of biology, chemistry, medicine and chemical engineering.


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Description The aberrant aggregation of proteins into insoluble fibrils is associated with a number of neurodegenerative conditions leading to progressive neuronal death, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. It is now generally acknowledged that small protein aggregates, designated as oligomers, are the key neurotoxic species in these diseases. Characterising these mechanisms of aggregation is a top research challenge for both medical and biotechnological research. Indeed the associated amyloid aggregates have a huge potential for biomaterial applications, however, we cannot fully employ them unless the inherent toxicity of some of their forms is understood. This research has elucidated some of the key molecular aspects by which protein aggregates can induce the toxicity in neurons and other types of cells (Fusco et al, Science 2017 358:1440-43; Capitini et al, Chemical Communications 2018, 54:8637-8640). We identified the fundamental characteristics that enable toxic protein oligomers to perturb biological membranes and disrupt cellular function; these include a highly lipophilic element that promotes strong membrane interactions and a structured region that inserts into lipid bilayers and disrupts their integrity.
These results will be useful for both designing toxic-free biomaterials based on amyloids as well as for drug discovery against toxic components in neurodegenerative diseases.
Exploitation Route The characterisation of the molecular bases of oligomers/membrane interactions, the key step for eliciting cellular toxicity of prefibrilar protein aggregates, will impact the wider academic community studying fundamental biotechnology, biomaterials, molecular bases of amyloid diseases (including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Diabetes type two) and more generally biophysics, biochemistry, NMR spectroscopy, molecular simulations. This includes a audience of NMR spectroscopists, biochemists and academics working in biotechnological applications, material scientists, chemical engineers, structural biologists, biophysicists.
Sectors Healthcare


including Industrial Biotechology

Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description University of Cambridge 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Our contribution to the partnership is to provide NMR support for structural investigations in biomolecular processes linked to neurodegenerative diseases
Collaborator Contribution The partner's contribution to the collaborative projects is to provide tools to assess the toxicity in vivo of protein aggregates linked to neurodegenerative diseases, which also represents a platform for drug screening
Impact We have jointly identified a number of molecular processes linked to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative disorders
Start Year 2007
Description University of Florence 
Organisation University of Florence
Country Italy 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution we perform NMR experiments to understand the nature of the toxicity of protein oligomers
Collaborator Contribution The partner is expert in using in vivo models to assess the toxicity of protein oligomers
Impact The research is on going
Start Year 2007
Description University of Minnesota 
Organisation University of Minnesota
Department Minnesota NMR Center
Country United States 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Our team is developing tools to use solid-state NMR for studying structure and dynamics of membrane proteins
Collaborator Contribution The Veglia lab is providing expertise in the biochemistry of the mechanisms of calcium channelling in the SR by SERCA-PLN-SLN regulation
Impact In the context of the grant from the British Heart Foundation, the collaboration has identified the nature of the SERCA-PLN interaction and the exploitation of this outcome is in progress, according to the research plan.
Start Year 2010