Research of the copper binding properties of GHK and two synthetic peptides, in which histidine was replaced with a synthetic amino acid, established that the amino acid glycine plays major role in copper binding, while lysine can interact with copper only at alkaline pH. At physiological pH, lysine is able to interact with a cellular receptor. The ability of GHK to interact both with copper and with a cellular receptor allows it to transfer copper into and from cells. The small size of GHK permits speedy traveling in extracellular space and its easy access to cellular receptors.
The molecular structure of the GHK copper complex (GHK-Cu) has been extensively studied using X-ray crystallography, EPR spectroscopy, X-ray absorption spectroscopy, NMR spectroscopy as well as other methods such as titration. In the GHK-Cu complex, the Cu (II) ion is coordinated by the nitrogen from the imidazole side chain of the histidine, another nitrogen from the alpha-amino group of glycine and the deprotonated amide nitrogen of the glycine–histidine peptide bond. Since such a structure couldn’t explain a high stability constant of the GHK-Cu complex (log 10 =16.44 vs. 8.68 of the GH copper complex, which is similar to the GHK-Cu structure), it was proposed that another amino group participates in the complex formation. According to the recent study by Hureau et al. the Cu(II) is also coordinated by the oxygen from the carboxyl group of the lysine from the neighboring complex. Another carboxyl group of lysine from a neighboring complex provides the apical oxygen, resulting in the square-planar pyramid configuration. Many researchers proposed that at the physiological pH, GHK-Cu complexes can form binary and ternary structures which may involve amino acid histidine and/or the copper binding region of the albumin molecule. Lau and Sarkar found also that GHK can easily obtain copper 2+ bound to other molecules such as the high affinity copper transport site on plasma albumin ((albumin binding constant log 10 =16.2 vs. GHK binding constant 16 log 10 =16.44). It has been established that copper (II) redox activity is silenced when copper ions are complexed with the GHK tripeptide, which allows the delivery of non-toxic copper into the cell.
Copper is a transition metal that is vital for all eukaryotic organisms from microbes to humans. A dozen enzymes (cuproenzymes) use changes in copper oxidation state to catalyze important biochemical reactions including cellular respiration (cytochrome c oxidase), antioxidant defense (ceruloplasmin, superoxide dismutase (SOD), detoxification (metallothioneins), blood clotting (blood clotting factors V and VIII), melanin production (tyrosinase) and the connective tissue formation (lysyl peroxidase). Copper is required for iron metabolism, oxygenation, neurotransmission, embryonic development and many other essential biological processes. Another function of copper is signaling – for example, stem cells require a certain level of copper in the media to start their differentiation into cells needed for repair. Thus, GHK-Cu’s ability to bind copper and to modulate its tissue level is a key factor determining its biological activity.