Hair-derived keratin biomaterials composed mostly of reduced keratin proteins (kerateines) have demonstrated their utility as carriers of biologics and drugs for tissue engineering. Electrostatic forces between negatively-charged keratins and biologic macromolecules allow for effective drug retention; attraction to positively-charged growth factors like bone morphogenetic protein 2 (BMP-2) has been used as a strategy for osteoinduction. In this study, the intermolecular surface and bulk interaction properties of kerateines were investigated. Thiol-rich kerateines were chemisorbed onto gold substrates to form an irreversible 2-nm rigid layer for surface plasmon resonance analysis. Kerateine-to-kerateine cohesion was observed in pH-neutral water with an equilibrium dissociation constant (KD) of 1.8 × 10-4 M, indicating that non-coulombic attractive forces (i.e. hydrophobic and van der Waals) were at work. The association of BMP-2 to kerateine was found to be greater (KD = 1.1 × 10-7 M), within the range of specific binding. Addition of salts (phosphate-buffered saline; PBS) shortened the Debye length or the electrostatic field influence which weakened the kerateine-BMP-2 binding (KD = 3.2 × 10-5 M). BMP-2 in bulk kerateine gels provided a limited release in PBS (∼ 10% dissociation in 4 weeks), suggesting that electrostatic intermolecular attraction was significant to retain BMP-2 within the keratin matrix. Complete dissociation between kerateine and BMP-2 occurred when the PBS pH was lowered (to 4.5), below the keratin isoelectric point of 5.3. This phenomenon can be attributed to the protonation of keratin at a lower pH, leading to positive-positive repulsion. Therefore, the dynamics of kerateine-BMP-2 binding is highly dependent on pH and salt concentration, as well as on BMP-2 solubility at different pH and molarity. The study findings may contribute to our understanding of the release kinetics of drugs from keratin biomaterials and allow for the development of better, more clinically relevant BMP-2-conjugated systems for bone repair and regeneration.
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