Aggregation in concentrated protein solutions: insights from rheology, neutron scattering and molecular simulations

Open Access
Castellanos Mantilla, Maria Monica
Graduate Program:
Materials Science and Engineering
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
September 18, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Ralph H Colby, Committee Chair
  • Coray M Colina, Committee Chair
  • Erwin A Vogler, Committee Member
  • Andrew Zydney, Committee Member
  • Jai A Pathak, Special Member
  • protein aggregation
  • protein rheology
  • neutron scattering
  • monoclonal antibody
  • molecular dynamics
  • viscosity
  • yield stress
Aggregation of therapeutic proteins is currently one of the major challenges in the bio-pharmaceutical industry, because aggregates could induce immunogenic responses and compromise the quality of the product. Current scientific efforts, both in industry and academia, are focused on developing rational approaches to screen different drug candidates and predict their stability under different conditions. Moreover, aggregation is promoted in highly concentrated protein solutions, which are typically required for subcutaneous injection. In order to gain further understanding about the mechanisms that lead to aggregation, an approach that combined rheology, neutron scattering, and molecular simulations was undertaken. Two model systems were studied in this work: Bovine Serum Albumin in surfactant-free Phosphate Buffered Saline at pH = 7.4 at concentrations from 11 mg/mL up to ~519 mg/mL, and a monoclonal antibody in 20 mM Histidine/Histidine Hydrochloride at pH = 6.0 with 60 mg/mL trehalose and 0.2 mg/mL polysorbate-80 at concentrations from 53 mg/mL up to ~220 mg/mL. The antibody used here has three mutations in the CH2 domain, which result in lower stability upon incubation at 40 C with respect to the wild-type protein, based on size-exclusion chromatography assays. This temperature is below 49 C, where unfolding of the least stable, CH2 domain occurs. This dissertation focuses on identifying the role of aggregation on the viscosity of protein solutions. The protein solutions of this work show an increase in the low shear viscosity in the absence of surfactants, because proteins adsorb at the air/water interface forming a viscoelastic film that affects the measured rheology. Stable surfactant-laden protein solutions behave as simple Newtonian fluids. However, the surfactant-laden antibody solution also shows an increase in the low shear viscosity from bulk aggregation, after prolonged incubation at 40 C. Small-angle neutron scattering experiments were used to characterize the antibody aggregates responsible for this non-Newtonian response. From the neutron scattering data, a weak barrier leading to reversible aggregation is identified. Therefore, proteins aggregate weakly after colliding hydrodynamically, unless they find a favorable contact with high binding energy. Two types of antibody aggregates were identified: oligomers with average radius of gyration of ~10 nm, and fractal aggregates larger than ~ 0.1 μm formed by a reaction-limited aggregation process. A characteristic upturn in the scattered intensity at low wavevector and a low shear viscosity increase are observed in aggregated protein solutions. These features are removed by filtering with a 0.2 μm filter, which also eliminates the submicron fractal aggregates. Biophysical characterization supports the conclusions from the rheology and neutron scattering experiments. Finally, molecular dynamics simulations were used to understand the effects of disulfide bonds on the conformational stability of serum albumin. Changes in disulfide bonds in the native structure could lead to partial unfolding, and the formation of aggregates through inter-molecular disulfide bonds. Therefore, it is important to understand the role of each disulfide bond on the structure and dynamics of the protein. After removing disulfide bonds, changes occur in the dynamic correlations between different residues, the secondary and tertiary structure of albumin. However, not all disulfide bonds affect the conformation of the protein. Removal of all disulfide bonds using molecular dynamics is proposed as a practical prescreening tool to identify disulfide bonds that are important for the conformational stability. As a result, some disulfide bonds can be mutated without affecting the conformation of the protein.