Dehua Pei

Kimberly Professor


Dehua Pei obtained his B.S. Degree in Chemistry from Wuhan University, China in 1986 and his Ph.D. Degree in organic chemistry from University of California, Berkeley in 1991, working under the direction of Peter G. Schultz. After a postdoctoral stint with Christopher T. Walsh at Harvard Medical School, he joined the faculty at OSU in 1995 as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2001 and to Professor in 2004. 

Research Overview

Biochemistry/Chemical Biology/Drug Discovery/Organic Chemistry

Our research spans from mechanistic study of biological phenomena, development of novel methodologies, to applications of the mechanistic understanding and methodologies to discover novel therapeutic agents and chemical probes. It is estimated that ~80% of all disease relevant human proteins are undruggable by current drug modalities, which include small molecules (molecular weight <500) and biologics (molecular weight >5000). Prominent examples of undruggable proteins are those involved in intracellular protein-protein interactions (PPIs) and the defective/missing proteins caused by genetic mutations. The ultimate goal of our research is to find a general strategy for drugging these challenging targets. The following projects are under current investigation in our group.

  • Macrocycles as Protein-Protein Interaction Inhibitors. Protein-protein interactions (PPIs) represent an exciting but also very challenging class of drug targets, because they usually have large, flat binding sites, to which conventional small molecules do not bind with high affinity or specificity. We and others have demonstrated that macrocycles in the molecular-weight range of 500-2000 serve as effective PPI inhibitors. We have developed a powerful technology to chemically synthesize and screen large libraries of cyclic and bicyclic peptides (up to 10exp8 different compounds) against essentially any protein of interest. We are currently applying this technology to discover macrocyclic peptide inhibitors against PPIs involved in human diseases (e.g., cancer, cystic fibrosis, inflammation, and autoimmunity). We are also developing new methodologies to synthesize and screen combinatorial libraries of non-peptidic, natural product-like macrocycles.
  • Cell-Penetrating Molecules for Drug Delivery. A major obstacle in drug discovery is that drug candidates often cannot cross the cell membrane to reach an intracellular target. This is particularly problematic for peptide-, protein-, and nucleic acid-based drugs (e.g., siRNA), which are mostly entrapped inside endosomes and subsequently digested inside lysosomes. We have discovered a family of small, amphipathic cyclic peptides such as cyclo(phe-Nal-Arg-arg-Arg-arg-Gln) as powerful cell-penetrating peptides, which are capable of efficiently delivering small molecules, peptides, proteins, and nucleic acids into the cytosol of mammalian cells. We discovered that the cyclic CPPs enter cells by endocytic mechanisms and efficiently exit the early endosome by a novel vesicle budding and collapse mechanism. We have also discovered non-peptidic cell-penetrating motifs (CPMs) that specifically deliver cargo molecules into the mitochondrial matrix. Current studies in this area include discovery of additional CPPs/CPMs with improved properties (e.g., selectivity for cancer cells) and further investigation of their molecular mechanisms of action.
  • Development of Intracellular Biologics and Chemical Probes. Biologic drugs (e.g., monoclonal antibodies) have transformed the drug industry over the past several decades, but are so far limited to targeting extracellular targets. We are leveraging the cyclic CPP technology to develop intracellular biologics as the next-generation therapeutics and chemical probes. First, we are developing innovative strategies to use cyclic CPPs to deliver proteins, nucleic acids, and protein-nucleic acid complexes into the cell. Second, the ligand discovery and cyclic CPP technologies from above are being integrated to develop macrocyclic peptides as potent, specific, cell-permeable, and metabolically stable inhibitors against medicinally important but previously challenging PPI targets, such as calcineurin (inflammation and organ transplantation), CAL PDZ domain (cystic fibrosis), MDM2 (cancer), NEMO (cancer and inflammation), K-Ras (cancer), and TNFα (autoimmunity and inflammation).

Selected Publications

  1. Lian, W., Upadhyaya, P., Rhodes, C. A., Liu, Y., and Pei, D. (2013) Screening Bicyclic Peptide Libraries for Protein−Protein Interaction Inhibitors: Discovery of a Tumor Necrosis Factor-α Antagonist. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 135, 11990-11995.
  2. Qian, Z., LaRochelle, J. R., Jiang, B., Lian, W., Hard, R. L., Selner. N., Luechapanickhul, R., Barrios, A. M., and Pei, D. (2014) Early Endosomal Escape of a Cyclic Cell-penetrating Peptide Allows Effective Cytosolic Cargo Delivery. Biochemistry 53, 4034-4046.
  3. Lian, W., Jiang, B., Qian, Z., and Pei, D. (2014) Cell-Permeable Bicyclic Peptide Inhibitors against Intracellular Proteins. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 136, 9830-9833.
  4. Upadhyaya, P., Qian, Z., Selner, N. G., Clippinger, S. R., Wu, Z., Briesewitz, R., and Pei, D. (2015) Inhibition of Ras Signaling by Blocking Ras-Effector Interactions with Cyclic peptides. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 54, 7602-7606.
  5. Trinh, T. B., Upadhyaya, P., Qian, Z., and Pei, D. (2016) Discovery of a Direct Ras Inhibitor by Screening a Combinatorial Library of Cell-Permeable Bicyclic Peptides. ACS Comb Sci. 18, 75-85.
  6. Qian, Z., Martyna, A., Hard, R. L., Wang, J., Appiah-Kubi, G., Coss, C., Phelps, M. A., Rossman, J. S., and Pei, D. (2016) Discovery and Mechanism of Highly Efficient Cyclic Cell-Penetrating Peptides. Biochemistry 55, 2601-2612.
  7. Qian, Z., Rhodes, C. A., McCroskey, L. C., Wen, J., Appiah-Kubi, G., Wang, D. J., Guttridge, D. C. and Pei, D. (2017) Enhancing the Cell Permeability and Metabolic Stability of Peptidyl Drugs by Reversible Bicyclization. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 56, 1525-1529.
  8. Karpurapu, M., Lee, Y. G., Qian, Z., Wen, J., Ballinger, M. N., Rusu, L., Chung, S., Deng, J., Qian, F., Reader, B. F., Nirujogi, T. S., Park, G. Y., Pei, D., and Christman, J. W. (2018) Inhibition of Nuclear Factor of Activated T cells (NFAT) c3 Activation Attenuates Acute Lung Injury and Pulmonary Edema in Murine Models of Sepsis. Oncotarget 9, 10606-10620.
  9. Rhodes, C. A., Dougherty, P. G., Cooper, J., Qian, Z., Lindert, S., Wang, Q.-E., and Pei, D. (2018) Cell-Permeable Bicyclic Peptidyl Inhibitors against NEMO-IκB Kinase Interaction Directly from a Combinatorial Library. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 140, 12102-12110.
  10. Appiah Kubi, G., Qian, Z., Amiar, S., Stahelin, R. V., and Pei, D. (2018) Non-peptidic Cell-penetrating Motifs for Mitochondrion-specific Cargo Delivery. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 57, 17183-17188.
Areas of Expertise
  • Biochemistry
  • Organic

Picture for pei.3

578 Biological Sciences Building