Platelet Factor 4 Interactions with Short Heparin Oligomers: Implications for Folding and Assembly Journal Articles uri icon

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  • Association of platelet factor 4 (PF4) with heparin is a first step in formation of aggregates implicated in the development of heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT), a potentially fatal immune disorder affecting 1-5% of patients receiving heparin. Despite being a critically important element in HIT etiology, relatively little is known about the specific molecular mechanism of PF4-heparin interactions. This work uses native mass spectrometry to investigate PF4 interactions with relatively short heparin chains (up to decasaccharides). The protein is shown to be remarkably unstable at physiological ionic strength in the absence of polyanions; only monomeric species are observed, and the extent of multiple charging of corresponding ions indicates a partial loss of conformational integrity. The tetramer signal remains at or below the detection threshold in the mass spectra until the solution's ionic strength is elevated well above the physiological level, highlighting the destabilizing role played by electrostatic interactions vis-à-vis quaternary structure of this high-pI protein. The tetramer assembly is dramatically facilitated by relatively short polyanions (synthetic heparin-mimetic pentasaccharide), with the majority of the protein molecules existing in the tetrameric state even at physiological ionic strength. Each tetramer accommodates up to six pentasaccharides, with at least three such ligands required to guarantee the higher-order structure integrity. Similar results are obtained for PF4 association with longer and structurally heterogeneous heparin oligomers (decamers). These longer polyanions can also induce PF4 dimer assembly when bound to the protein in relatively low numbers, lending support to a model of PF4/heparin interaction in which the latter wraps around the protein, making contacts with multiple subunits. Taken together, these results provide a more nuanced picture of PF4-glycosaminoglycan interactions leading to complex formation. This work also advocates for a greater utilization of native mass spectrometry in elucidating molecular mechanisms underlying HIT, as well as other physiological processes driven by electrostatic interactions.


  • Niu, Chendi
  • Yang, Yang
  • Huynh, Angela
  • Nazy, Ishac
  • Kaltashov, Igor A

publication date

  • October 2020