Peptide and Oligonucleotide Therapeutics Group

Our research takes advantage of antisense technology to develop gene-specific antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs). ASOs are DNA-like molecules that can be used as genetic medicines for treating neurodegenerative diseases. Our group is also developing a peptide-based drug delivery system that can cross the blood-brain barrier, the barrier protecting the brain from harmful substances in the blood. By combining the molecular basis of this delivery system with therapeutic ASOs, we have created a unique and innovative therapeutic platform technology that is superior to other brain targeted ASO therapeutics.

Research interests

  • Motor neurone disease
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Spinal muscular atrophy
  • Spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Antisense therapeutics
  • Oligonucleotides
  • Peptides
  • Blood-brain barrier
  • CNS drug delivery system

  • ASO design
  • Oligonucleotide synthesis
  • Peptide synthesis
  • Peptide-oligonucleotide conjugate synthesis
  • HPLC analysis and purification
  • Mass spectrometry characterisation
  • Cell-based assays
  • Molecular biology techniques
  • Immunoassays
  • Confocal and fluorescent microscopy imaging

About our research

The therapeutic antisense program in our group is focused on developing the latest and more superior generation of ASOs targeting mutant genes in ALS, SMA, PD, AD and Kennedy’s diseases (a.k.a SBMA). As part of this antisense therapy program, we are developing ASOs targeting SOD1, ATAXIN2 and C9ORF72 genes for ALS, SMN2 gene in SMA, α-synuclein for PD, protein phosphatase methylesterase 1 (PPME1) for AD and androgen receptor (AR)-targeting ASO for KD (SBMA).

Spinal muscular atrophy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

These are diseases of motor neuron degeneration in the brain and spinal cord leading to paralysis of voluntary muscles and death by respiratory failure. While SMA primarily affects infants and children, the average age of onset for ALS is around 55.

Spinal muscular atrophy is caused by deletion of the survival motor neuron 1 (SMN1) gene that results in a deficiency of survival motor neuron (SMN) protein in the spinal motor neurons leading to their selective loss. Humans have a second, nearly identical copy of this gene, SMN2. In the absence of SMN1, SMN2 cannot protect from disease development. This is due to a C-to-T mutation within exon-7 that leads to the exclusion of exon-7 in the majority (>90%) of SMN2 transcripts. This, in turn, leads to the production of a truncated, unstable SMN protein that is rapidly degraded. The remaining SMN2 transcripts that produce full-length functional SMN protein are insufficient to compensate for the loss of SMN1. We have been using antisense ASOs to correct SMN2 aberrant splicing and restore functional SMN protein.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a fatal neuronal disorder that is caused by the progressive dysfunction and death of motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. The majority of ALS cases are sporadic (90%) with the remaining 5-10% being familial. Mutations in a variety of genes have been implicated in familial ALS. The RNAs from these genes and their protein products have been shown to cause motor neuron toxicity and death. Currently, we are developing ASOs tailored towards some of the most common ALS-causing genes such chromosome 9 open reading frame 72 (C9orf72), superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD1) and ataxin-2.  

Parkinson’s disease

Converging lines of evidence implicate alpha-synuclein in a causative role in PD and its progression and alpha-synuclein has been identified as the major protein component in Lewy bodies and Lewy neurites which are pathological hallmarks of PD. Reduction in the level of alpha-synuclein has been shown to provide significant therapeutic effect in pre-clinical models of PD.

In our approach, we are developing a novel class of brain-penetrating ASO targeting SCNA RNA to reduce alpha-synuclein protein expression in the brain following systemic administration. This diseases-modifying therapy has a significant translational potential.

Alzheimer’s disease

A defining pathological feature of AD is intra-neuronal tau deposition as a result of aberrant level of phosphorylated tau (pTau). The protein phosphatase 2A (PP2A) is the dominant kinase responsible for tau phosphorylation. Our therapeutic strategy is to increase the relative amount of methylated PP2A by preventing demethylation of the protein. We are developing ASOs that knock down protein phosphatase methylesterase 1 (PME-1) which demethylates PP2A. Therefore, using antisense approach to promote the methylation event driving PP2A tau-phosphatase activity has therapeutic potential for AD.

Spinal bulbar muscular atrophy

Spinal bulbar muscular atrophy, commonly known as Kennedy’s disease (KD), is a slowly progressive rare neurodegenerative disease in which degeneration of lower motor neurons results in muscle weakness and fasciculation in affecting adult males. SBMA is caused by a genetic mutation (CAG repeat code for polyglutamine) of the androgen receptor gene. The polyglutamine-expanded AR (polyQ AR) forms oligomers and interfere with various cellular processes with deleterious effect.

In this project, we are developing ASO targeting polyQ AR to lower the level or AR. This therapeutic intervention provides a significant benefit by reducing the symptoms and slowing the disease progression.

Developing brain-penetrating autophagy-inducing peptide therapy

Upregulation of autophagy as a means to promote clearance of protein aggregates and restore neuronal health holds great promise as a viable therapeutic approach for neurodegenerative diseases. As part of this research program, we are developing novel autophagy-inducing peptides which are highly selective and can penetrate cell and BBB to reach their neuronal target.

We have discovered a potent 15 amino acid long autophagy-inducing peptide (BCN4) derived from the evolutionarily conserved domain (ECD) of the protein Beclin-1, a known master regulator of autophagy. The BCN4 peptide showed a significant upregulation of autophagy in the CNS following systemic administration in a reporter mouse model of autophagy.

Currently, we are further optimising this peptide to enhance its pharmacokinetics and evaluating the therapeutic applicability of this novel peptide in relevant mouse model of neurodegenerative diseases.

Developing a peptide-based CNS drug delivery platform

One of the greatest challenges facing neurotherapeutics development and in particular biotherapeutic such as peptides and ASOs, is blood-brain barrier (BBB)-permeability and CNS bioavailability. In order to unlock the therapeutic potential of these biotherapeutics, they need to reach their neuronal targets in CNS. Therefore, an integral component of our research that is focused on therapeutic ASOs and peptides, is development of a peptide-based delivery platform for systemic CNS delivery of these novel biotherapeutics.



Research team

Research team head

Headshot_Fazel Shabanpoor

Dr Fazel Shabanpoor

Group Head

Team members

Research fellows

PhD students

  • Jack Yuan
  • Matteo Alexander Pitteri

Selected publications

  • Dastpeyman M, Sharifi R, Amin A, Karas JA, Cuic B, Pan Y, Nicolazzo JA, Turner BJ and Shabanpoor F (2021), ‘Endosomal escape cell-penetrating peptides significantly enhance pharmacological effectiveness and CNS activity of systemically administered antisense oligonucleotides’, International Journal of Pharmaceutics, 15;599:120398, doi:10.1016/j.ijpharm.2021.120398
  • ‌Dastpeyman M, Karas JA, Amin A, Turner BJ and Shabanpoor F (2021), ‘Modular synthesis of trifunctional peptide-oligonucleotide conjugates via native chemical ligation’, Frontiers in Chemistry, 2;9:627329, doi:10.3389/fchem.2021.627329
  • Patil NA, Karas JA, Turner BJ and Shabanpoor F (2019), ‘Thiol-cyanobenzothiazole ligation for the efficient preparation of peptide-PNA conjugates’, Bioconjugate Chemistry, 30(3):793–799, doi:10.1021/acs.bioconjchem.8b00908
  • Miyatake S, Mizobe Y, Tsoumpra MK, Lim KRQ, Hara Y, Shabanpoor F, Yokota T, Takeda S and Aoki Y (2019), ‘Scavenger receptor class A1 mediates uptake of morpholino antisense oligonucleotide into dystrophic skeletal muscle’, Molecular Therapy Nucleic Acids, 14:520–535, doi:10.1016/j.omtn.2019.01.008
  • Shabanpoor F, Hammond SM, Abendroth F, Hazell G, Wood MJA and Gait MJ (2017), ‘Identification of a peptide for systemic brain delivery of a morpholino oligonucleotide in mouse models of spinal muscular atrophy’, Nucleic Acid Therapeutics, 27(3):130–143 doi:10.1089/nat.2016.0652

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