The Joshua Kritzer Lab

Research Publications Cell Biology


Designing New Molecular Therapeutics

As we achieve a molecular-level understanding of disease, we are left with the daunting task of developing molecules to intervene. The Kritzer laboratory aims to discover molecules that can be used to probe the mechanisms of human disease and to streamline the development of those molecules as therapeutic agents. We apply methods that integrate genetics, biophysics, and organic synthesis to complement structure-based design and traditional high-throughput screening with innovative techniques.

Kritzer Fig 1

Figure 1. Large collections of different peptides and peptidomimetics can be synthesized, each attached to an individual bead the size of a grain of sand. A fluorescently-labeled protein can then be used to discover which molecules bind that protein. Beads coated with tight protein binders will accumulate fluorescence (orange glow), while poor binders will remain dark (dark green).

Many of our targets are disease-associated proteins that have been ignored or discarded as "undruggable." By using new classes of molecules as inhibitors, we are reversing long-held assumptions about what proteins can be useful targets for cellular probes and potential therapies. We are currently targeting proteins involved in breast cancer, skin cancer, diabetes, bacterial meningitis, and bacterial pneumonia.

Kritzer Fig 2 

Figure 2. One of our targets is a protease secreted by diverse Gram-positive and Gram-negative pathogens. These proteases are virulence factors that cleave the human mucosal antibody IgA1, and disabling these antibodies is an important step in the infection and invasion of these pathogens. Inhibitors of these IgA1 proteases would be an anti-virulence approach to fighting devastating acute and chronic infections, without promoting resistance.

Getting in shape: Controlling peptide bioactivity and bioavailability using conformational constraints

Molecules can be successfully designed to inhibit a target protein by arraying specific functional groups in three dimensions in order to interact "just so" with the protein surface. Another tenet of drug design is that molecules must have favorable physicochemical properties that ensure it will be stable in biological systems and cell-penetrant. The Kritzer lab focuses on how molecule shape (its 3-D conformation) plays a predominant role in determining a molecule's chemical and biological function.

Kritzer Fig 3

Figure 3. X-ray crystallography and NMR are used by the Kritzer lab to improve peptide design. In a project designing peptide-based metallocatalysts, we determined the structure of the same cyclic peptide in two states: free (beige) and metal-bound (black). This allows us to visualize the structural transition that occurs upon metal binding.

We are re-examining “exceptions” to physicochemical rules, and discovering surprisingly general scaffolds for highly bioactive and bioavailable molecules. We use novel design and combinatorial screening strategies to identify molecules that inhibit hard-to-target proteins involved in human disease, and then we are use conformation as a tool to improve the molecules' performance in biological systems. In this manner, we are producing not only inhibitors, but useful probes and therapeutic leads for targets that have been overlooked or abandoned as too difficult.

Kritzer Fig 4 

Figure 4. Adding intramolecular covalent constraints, or “staples,” allows us to turn poorly structured peptides into highly structured, potent inhibitors for a variety of proteins. The Kritzer lab is a pioneer in translating new chemistries and design strategies for the development of stapled peptides as inhibitors of protein-protein interactions, which are difficult to target using traditional drug molecules. By pursuing these new classes of molecules, we are opening up hundreds of new drug targets that were previously dismissed as “undruggable.”

The hallmarks of our research strategies are efficiency, accessibility, and interdisciplinarity, covering a wide range of relevant science:

  • Novel synthetic routes to useful building blocks for controlling peptide conformation
  • Synthesis of novel constrained peptide scaffolds with unusual properties and improved cell penetration
  • Structural characterization in order to develop design rules for constrained peptides
  • Translation from test tube to cell culture to whole-organism models of disease Novel inhibitors of previously "undruggable" proteins

Apply to the Sackler School


The priority application deadlines are as follows:

December 1: Basic Science Division PhD Programs

February 15: Building Diversity in Biomedical Sciences

March 31: Post-Baccalaureate Research Program

May 1: Clinical & Translational Science, MS in Pharmacology & Drug Development

June 15: Online Certificate in Fundamentals of Clinical Care Research