Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry

First Advisor

Dr. Craig W. Vander Kooi


Neuropilin (Nrp) is an essential cell surface receptor with dual functionality in the cardiovascular and nervous systems. The first identified Nrp-ligand family was the Semaphorin-3 (Sema3) family of axon repulsion molecules. Subsequently, Nrp was found to serve as a receptor for the vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) family of pro-angiogenic cytokines. In addition to its physiological role, VEGF signaling via Nrp directly contributes to cancer stemness, growth, and metastasis. Thus, the Nrp/VEGF signaling axis is a promising anti-cancer therapeutic target. Interestingly, it has recently been shown that Sema3 and VEGF are functionally opposed to one another, with Sema3 possessing potent endogenous anti-angiogenic activity and VEGF serving as an attractive cue for neuronal axons. We hypothesized that direct competition for an overlapping binding site within the Nrp extracellular domain may explain the observed functional competition between VEGF and Sema3. To test this hypothesis we have separately investigated the mechanisms of VEGF and Sema3 binding to Nrp. Utilizing structural biology coupled with biophysics and biochemistry we have identified both distinct and common mechanisms that facilitate the interaction between Nrp and these two ligand families. Specifically, we have identified an Nrp binding pocket to which these ligands competitively bind. The Sema3 family uniquely requires proteolytic activation in order to engage this overlapping binding site. These findings provide critical mechanistic insight into VEGF and Sema3 mediated physiology. Additionally, these data have informed the development of small molecules, peptides, and soluble receptor fragments that function as potent and selective inhibitors of VEGF/Nrp binding with exciting therapeutic potential for treating cancer.