The family of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) ligands and their interactions with VEGF receptors (VEGFRs) play important roles in both pathological and physiological angiogenesis. Hence, agonistic and antagonistic ligands targeting this signaling pathway have potential for both studies on fundamental biology and for development of therapies and diagnostics. Here, we engineer VEGFR2-binding affibody molecules for increased thermostability, refolding and improved biodistribution. We designed libraries based on the original monomeric binders with the intention of reducing hydrophobicity, while retaining high affinity for VEGFR2. Libraries were displayed on bacteria and binders were isolated by fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). In parallel, we used an automated sequence- and structure-based in silico algorithm to identify potentially stabilizing mutations. Monomeric variants isolated from the screening and the in silico approach, respectively, were characterized by circular dichroism spectroscopy and biosensor assays. The most promising mutations were combined into new monomeric constructs which were finally fused into a dimeric construct, resulting in a 15 °C increase in melting temperature, complete refolding capability after heat-induced denaturation, retained low picomolar affinity and improved biodistribution profile in an in vivo mouse model. These VEGFR2-binding affibody molecules show promise as candidates for further in vivo studies to assess their suitability as molecular imaging and therapeutic agents.
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