Steric Effects in Peptide and Protein Exchange with Activated Disulfides

Disulfide exchange is an important bioconjugation tool, enabling chemical modification of peptides and proteins containing free cysteines. We previously reported the synthesis of a macromer bearing an activated disulfide and its incorporation into hydrogels. Despite their ability to diffuse freely into hydrogels, larger proteins were unable to undergo in-gel disulfide exchange. In order to understand this phenomenon, we synthesized four different activated disulfide-bearing model compounds (Mn = 300 Da to 10 kDa) and quantified their rate of disulfide exchange with a small peptide (glutathione), a moderate-sized protein (β-lactoglobulin), and a large protein (bovine serum albumin) in four different pH solutions (6.0, 7.0, 7.4, and 8.0) to mimic biological systems. Rate constants of exchange depend significantly on the size and accessibility of the thiolate. pH also significantly affects the rate of reaction, with the faster reactions occurring at higher pH. Surprisingly, little difference in exchange rates is seen between macromolecular disulfides of varying size (Mn = 2 kDa – 10 kDa), although all undergo exchange more slowly than their small molecule analogue (MW = 300 g/mol). The maximum exchange efficiencies (% disulfides exchanged after 24 h) are not siginificantly affected by thiol size or pH, but somewhat affected by disulfide size. Therefore, while all three factors investigated (pH, disulfide size, and thiolate size) can influence the exchange kinetics and extent of reaction, the size of the thiolate and its accessibility plays the most significant role.