Selection of single domain anti-transferrin receptor antibodies for blood-brain barrier transcytosis using a neurotensin based assay and histological assessment of target engagement in a mouse model of Alzheimer's related amyloid-beta pathology

Shiran Su, Washington University in St. Louis
Thomas J. Esparza, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
David L. Brody, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis


The blood-brain barrier (BBB) presents a major obstacle in developing specific diagnostic imaging agents for many neurological disorders. In this study we aimed to generate single domain anti-mouse transferrin receptor antibodies (anti-mTfR VHHs) to mediate BBB transcytosis as components of novel MRI molecular contrast imaging agents. Anti-mTfR VHHs were produced by immunizing a llama with mTfR, generation of a VHH phage display library, immunopanning, and in vitro characterization of candidates. Site directed mutagenesis was used to generate additional variants. VHH fusions with neurotensin (NT) allowed rapid, hypothermia-based screening for VHH-mediated BBB transcytosis in wild-type mice. One anti-mTfR VHH variant was fused with an anti-amyloid-beta (Aβ) VHH dimer and labeled with fluorescent dye for direct assessment of in vivo target engagement in a mouse model of AD-related Aβ plaque pathology. An anti-mTfR VHH called M1 and variants had binding affinities to mTfR of <1nM to 1.52nM. The affinity of the VHH binding to mTfR correlated with the efficiency of the VHH-NT induced hypothermia effects after intravenous injection of 600 nmol>/kg body weight, ranging from undetectable for nonbinding mutants to -6°C for the best mutants. The anti-mTfR VHH variant M1P96H with the strongest hypothermia effect was fused to the anti-Aβ VHH dimer and labeled with Alexa647; the dye-labeled VHH fusion construct still bound both mTfR and Aβ plaques at concentrations as low as 0.22 nM. However, after intravenous injection at 600 nmol/kg body weight into APP/PS1 transgenic mice, there was no detectible labeling of plaques above control levels. Thus, NT-induced hypothermia did not correlate with direct target engagement in cortex, likely because the concentration required for NT-induced hypothermia was lower than the concentration required to produce in situ labeling. These findings reveal an important dissociation between NT-induced hypothermia, presumably mediated by hypothalamus, and direct engagement with Aβ-plaques in cortex. Additional methods to assess anti-mTfR VHH BBB transcytosis will need to be developed for anti-mTfR VHH screening and the development of novel MRI molecular contrast agents.