This study demonstrated that a thoughtfully designed SELEX procedure with natural DNA libraries can isolate aptamers with high affinity and specificity for challenging small molecules, including targets for which such selections have previously failed.
Aptamers are nucleic acid-based affinity reagents that are isolated via an in vitro process known as systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment (SELEX). Despite their great potential for a wide range of analytical applications, there are relatively few high-quality small-molecule binding aptamers, especially for “challenging” targets that have low water solubility and/or limited moieties for aptamer recognition. The use of libraries containing chemically modified bases may improve the outcome of some SELEX experiments, but this approach is costly and yields inconsistent results. The current project first isolated a DNA aptamer with nanomolar affinity and high specificity for (−)-trans-Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a target previously thought to be unsuitable for SELEX with natural DNA libraries. The study subsequently isolated aptamers that exhibited high affinity and cross-reactivity to two other challenging targets, synthetic cannabinoids UR-144 and XLR-11, while maintaining excellent specificity against a wide range of non-target interferents. The findings demonstrate that natural nucleic acid libraries can yield high-quality aptamers for small-molecule targets, and a robust workflow is outlined for isolating other such aptamers in future selection efforts. (publisher abstract modified)