Wehr J, Sikorski E, Bloch E, Feigman M, Ferraro N, Baybutt T, Snook A, Pires M, Thévenin D. pH-Dependent Grafting of Cancer Cells with Antigenic Epitopes Promotes Selective Antibody-Mediated Cytotoxicity. J Med Chem. 2020;63(7):3713-3722.
A growing class of immunotherapeutics work by redirecting components of the immune system to recognize markers on the surface of cancer cells. However, such modalities will remain confined to a relatively small subgroup of patients because of the lack of universal targetable tumor biomarkers among all patients. Here, we designed a unique class of agents that exploit the inherent acidity of solid tumors to selectively graft cancer cells with immuno-engager epitopes. Our targeting approach is based on pHLIP, a unique peptide that selectively targets tumors by anchoring to cancer cell surfaces in a pH-dependent manner. We established that pHLIP-antigen conjugates trigger the recruitment of antibodies to the surface of cancer cells and induce cytotoxicity by peripheral blood mononuclear and engineered NK cells. These results indicate that these agents have the potential to be applicable to treating a wide range of solid tumors and to circumvent problems associated with narrow windows of selectivity.
Cell walls are barriers found in almost all known bacterial cells. These structures establish a controlled interface between the external environment and vital cellular components. A primary component of cell wall is a highly cross-linked matrix called peptidoglycan (PG). PG cross-linking, carried out by transglycosylases and transpeptidases, is necessary for proper cell wall assembly. Transpeptidases, targets of β-lactam antibiotics, stitch together two neighboring PG stem peptides (acyl-donor and acyl-acceptor strands). We recently described a novel class of cellular PG probes that were processed exclusively as acyl-donor strands. Herein, we have accessed the other half of the transpeptidase reaction by developing probes that are processed exclusively as acyl-acceptor strands. The critical nature of the cross-bridge on the PG peptide was demonstrated in live bacterial cells, and surprising promiscuity in cross-bridge primary sequence was found in various bacterial species. Additionally, acyl-acceptor probes provided insight into how chemical remodeling of the PG cross-bridge (e.g., amidation) can modulate cross-linking levels, thus establishing a physiological role of PG structural variations. Together, the acyl-donor and -acceptor probes will provide a versatile platform to interrogate PG cross-linking in physiologically relevant settings.


Wang L, Jakob D, Wang H, Apostolos A, Pires M, Xu X. Generalized Heterodyne Configurations for Photoinduced Force Microscopy. Anal Chem. 2019;91(20):13251-13259.
Infrared chemical microscopy through mechanical probing of light-matter interactions by atomic force microscopy (AFM) bypasses the diffraction limit. One increasingly popular technique is photoinduced force microscopy (PiFM), which utilizes the mechanical heterodyne signal detection between cantilever mechanical resonant oscillations and the photoinduced force from the light-matter interaction. So far, PiFM has been operated in only one heterodyne configuration. In this Article, we generalize heterodyne configurations of PiFM by introducing two new schemes: harmonic heterodyne detection and sequential heterodyne detection. In harmonic heterodyne detection, the laser repetition rate matches integer fractions of the difference between the two mechanical resonant modes of the AFM cantilever. The high harmonic of the beating from the photothermal expansion mixes with the AFM cantilever oscillation to provide the PiFM signal. In sequential heterodyne detection, the combination of the repetition rate of laser pulses and the polarization modulation frequency matches the difference between two AFM mechanical modes, leading to detectable PiFM signals. These two generalized heterodyne configurations for PiFM deliver new avenues for chemical imaging and broadband spectroscopy at ∼10 nm spatial resolution. They are suitable for a wide range of heterogeneous materials across various disciplines: from structured polymer film, to polaritonic boron nitride materials, to isolated bacterial peptidoglycan cell walls. The generalized heterodyne configurations introduce flexibility for the implementation of PiFM and the related tapping-mode AFM-IR and provide possibilities for an additional modulation channel in PiFM for targeted signal extraction with nanoscale spatial resolution.
Pidgeon S, Apostolos A, Nelson J, Shaku M, Rimal B, Islam N, Crick D, Kim SJ, Pavelka M, Kana B, et al. L,D-Transpeptidase Specific Probe Reveals Spatial Activity of Peptidoglycan Cross-Linking. ACS Chem Biol. 2019;14(10):2185-2196.
Peptidoglycan (PG) is a cross-linked, meshlike scaffold endowed with the strength to withstand the internal pressure of bacteria. Bacteria are known to heavily remodel their peptidoglycan stem peptides, yet little is known about the physiological impact of these chemical variations on peptidoglycan cross-linking. Furthermore, there are limited tools to study these structural variations, which can also have important implications on cell wall integrity and host immunity. Cross-linking of peptide chains within PG is an essential process, and its disruption thereof underpins the potency of several classes of antibiotics. Two primary cross-linking modes have been identified that are carried out by D,D-transpeptidases and L,D-transpeptidases (Ldts). The nascent PG from each enzymatic class is structurally unique, which results in different cross-linking configurations. Recent advances in PG cellular probes have been powerful in advancing the understanding of D,D-transpeptidation by Penicillin Binding Proteins (PBPs). In contrast, no cellular probes have been previously described to directly interrogate Ldt function in live cells. Herein, we describe a new class of Ldt-specific probes composed of structural analogs of nascent PG, which are metabolically incorporated into the PG scaffold by Ldts. With a panel of tetrapeptide PG stem mimics, we demonstrated that subtle modifications such as amidation of iso-Glu can control PG cross-linking. Ldt probes were applied to quantify and track the localization of Ldt activity in , , and . These results confirm that our Ldt probes are specific and suggest that the primary sequence of the stem peptide can control Ldt cross-linking levels. We anticipate that unraveling the interplay between Ldts and other cross-linking modalities may reveal the organization of the PG structure in relation to the spatial localization of cross-linking machineries.


Peptidoglycan (PG) biosynthesis and assembly are needed for bacterial cell wall formation. Lipid II is the precursor in the PG biosynthetic pathway and carries a nascent PG unit that is processed by glycosyltransferases. Despite its immense therapeutic value as a target of several classes of antibiotics, the conformational ensemble of lipid II in bacterial membranes and its interactions with membrane-anchored enzymes remain elusive. In this work, lipid II and its elongated forms (lipid VI and lipid XII) were modeled and simulated in bilayers of POPE (palmitoyl-oleoyl-phosphatidyl-ethanolamine) and POPG (palmitoyl-oleoyl-phosphatidyl-glycerol) that mimic the prototypical composition of Gram-negative cytoplasmic membranes. In addition, penicillin-binding protein 1b (PBP1b) from Escherichia coli was modeled and simulated in the presence of a nascent PG to investigate their interactions. Trajectory analysis reveals that as the glycan chain grows, the non-reducing end of the nascent PG displays much greater fluctuation along the membrane normal and minimally interacts with the membrane surface. In addition, dihedral angles within the pyrophosphate moiety are determined by the length of the PG moiety and its surrounding environment. When a nascent PG is bound to PBP1b, the stem peptide remains in close contact with PBP1b by structural rearrangement of the glycan chain. Most importantly, the number of nascent PG units required to reach the transpeptidase domain are determined to be 7 or 8. Our findings complement experimental results to further understand how the structure of nascent PG can dictate the assembly of the PG scaffold.
Feigman MS, Kim S, Pidgeon S, Yu Y, Ongwae GM, Patel D, Regen S, Im W, Pires M. Synthetic Immunotherapeutics against Gram-negative Pathogens. Cell Chem Biol. 2018;25(10):1185-1194.e5.
While traditional drug discovery continues to be an important platform for the search of new antibiotics, alternative approaches should also be pursued to complement these efforts. We herein designed a class of molecules that decorate bacterial cell surfaces with the goal of re-engaging components of the immune system toward Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. More specifically, conjugates were assembled using polymyxin B (an antibiotic that inherently attaches to the surface of Gram-negative pathogens) and antigenic epitopes that recruit antibodies found in human serum. We established that the spacer length played a significant role in hapten display within the bacterial cell surface, a result that was confirmed both experimentally and via molecular dynamics simulations. Most importantly, we demonstrated the specific killing of bacteria by our agent in the presence of human serum. By enlisting the immune system, these agents have the potential to pave the way for a potent antimicrobial modality.
Drug resistance to our current stock of antibiotics is projected to increase to levels that threaten our ability to reduce and eliminate bacterial infections, which is now considered one of the primary health care crises of the 21st century. Traditional antibiotic agents (e.g., penicillin) paved the way for massive advances in human health, but we need novel strategies to maintain the upper hand in the battle against pathogenic bacteria. Nontraditional strategies, such as targeted immunotherapies, could prove fruitful in complementing our antibiotic arsenal.


Fura J, Sarkar S, Pidgeon S, Pires M. Combatting Bacterial Pathogens with Immunomodulation and Infection Tolerance Strategies. Curr Top Med Chem. 2017;17(3):290-304.
The discovery of antibiotics is one of the most significant milestones in modern medicine. Upon the advent of the antibiotic era, invasive surgical procedures, which were previously deemed too risky because of the possibility of bacterial infection, became a reality. In the process, medicine as a whole made great strides that led to the rise of the average human life span by almost three decades. Unfortunately, over the course of time bacteria have started to evolve resistance to antibiotic agents being administered, thus rendering many of these drugs ineffective (or on the verge of being ineffective). Today, the number of antibiotic- resistant bacteria continues to escalate and yet the number of new antibiotics being approved for clinical use has drastically decreased. The combination of these two factors has brought about a primary public health crisis for the 21st century. In order to maintain the status quo of modern medicine, new antibiotics need to be discovered and developed. Two emerging new strategies that hold considerable promise is the use of immunomodulator antibiotics and infection tolerance agents. Rather than targeting the bacteria directly, as traditional antibiotics do, these agents function to clear or tolerate infections by interfering with the bacterial colonization process and by stimulating the immune system of infected host. This review focuses on the different types of immunomodulation antibiotics and infection tolerance strategies that have been discovered over the last two decades and the mechanisms by which they act upon the host system to effectively combat bacterial infections.
Drug-resistant bacterial infections threaten to overburden our healthcare system and disrupt modern medicine. A large class of potent antibiotics, including vancomycin, operate by interfering with bacterial cell wall biosynthesis. Vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) evade the blockage of cell wall biosynthesis by altering cell wall precursors, rendering them drug insensitive. Herein, we reveal the phenotypic plasticity and cell wall remodeling of VRE in response to vancomycin in live bacterial cells via a metabolic probe. A synthetic cell wall analog was designed and constructed to monitor cell wall structural alterations. Our results demonstrate that the biosynthetic pathway for vancomycin-resistant precursors can be hijacked by synthetic analogs to track the kinetics of phenotype induction. In addition, we leveraged this probe to interrogate the response of VRE cells to vancomycin analogs and a series of cell wall-targeted antibiotics. Finally, we describe a proof-of-principle strategy to visually inspect drug resistance induction. Based on our findings, we anticipate that our metabolic probe will play an important role in further elucidating the interplay among the enzymes involved in the VRE biosynthetic rewiring.
Pidgeon S, Pires M. Vancomycin-Dependent Response in Live Drug-Resistant Bacteria by Metabolic Labeling. Angew Chem Int Ed Engl. 2017;56(30):8839-8843.
The surge in drug-resistant bacterial infections threatens to overburden healthcare systems worldwide. Bacterial cell walls are essential to bacteria, thus making them unique targets for the development of antibiotics. We describe a cellular reporter to directly monitor the phenotypic switch in drug-resistant bacteria with temporal resolution. Vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) escape the bactericidal action of vancomycin by chemically modifying their cell-wall precursors. A synthetic cell-wall analogue was developed to hijack the biosynthetic rewiring of drug-resistant cells in response to antibiotics. Our study provides the first in vivo VanX reporter agent that responds to cell-wall alteration in drug-resistant bacteria. Cellular reporters that reveal mechanisms related to antibiotic resistance can potentially have a significant impact on the fundamental understanding of cellular adaption to antibiotics.