Impact of Polymer Bioconjugation on Protein Stability and Activity Investigated with Discrete Conjugates: Alternatives to PEGylation

Covalent attachment of synthetic polymers to proteins, known as protein–polymer conjugation, is currently one of the main approaches for improving the physicochemical properties of these biomolecules. The most commonly employed polymer is polyethylene glycol (PEG), as evidenced by extensive research and clinical track records for its use in biopharmaceuticals. However, the occurrence of allergic reactions or hypersensitivity and the discovery of PEG antibodies, on the one hand, and the rise of controlled polymerization techniques and novel monomers, on the other hand, have been driving the search for alternative polymers for bioconjugation. The present study describes the synthesis, purification, and properties of conjugates of lysozyme with poly­(N-acryloylmorpholine) (PNAM) and poly­(oligoethylene glycol methyl ether methacrylate) (POEGMA). Particularly, conjugate species with distinct conjugation degrees are investigated for their residual activity, aggregation behavior, and solubility, by using a high-throughput screening approach. Our study showcases the importance of evaluating conjugates obtained by nonsite-specific modification through isolated species with discrete degrees of conjugation rather than on the batch level. Monovalent conjugates with relatively low molar mass polymers displayed equal or even higher activity than the native protein, while all conjugates showed an improved protein solubility. To achieve a comparable effect on solubility as with PEG, PNAM and POEGMA of higher molar masses were required.