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Modifying Cell Membranes with Anionic Polymer Amphiphiles Potentiates Intracellular Delivery of Cationic Peptides

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journal contribution
posted on 30.10.2020, 15:04 by Eric A. Dailing, Kameron V. Kilchrist, J. William Tierney, R. Brock Fletcher, Brian C. Evans, Craig L. Duvall
Rapid, facile, and noncovalent cell membrane modification with alkyl-grafted anionic polymers was sought as an approach to enhance intracellular delivery and bioactivity of cationic peptides. We synthesized a library of acrylic acid-based copolymers containing varying amounts of an amine-reactive pentafluorophenyl acrylate monomer followed by postpolymerization modification with a series of alkyl amines to afford precise control over the length and density of aliphatic alkyl side chains. This synthetic strategy enabled systematic investigation of the effect of the polymer structure on membrane binding, potentiation of peptide cell uptake, pH-dependent disruption of lipid bilayers for endosome escape, and intracellular bioavailability. A subset of these polymers exhibited pKa of ∼6.8, which facilitated stable membrane association at physiological pH and rapid, pH-dependent endosomal disruption upon endocytosis as quantified in Galectin-8-YFP reporter cells. Cationic cell penetrating peptide (CPP) uptake was enhanced up to 15-fold in vascular smooth muscle cells in vitro when peptide treatment was preceded by a 30-min pretreatment with lead candidate polymers. We also designed and implemented a new and highly sensitive assay for measuring the intracellular bioavailability of CPPs based on the NanoLuciferase (NanoLuc) technology previously developed for measuring intracellular protein–protein interactions. Using this split luciferase class of assay, polymer pretreatment enhanced intracellular delivery of the CPP-modified HiBiT peptide up to 30-fold relative to CPP-HiBiT without polymer pretreatment (p < 0.05). The overall structural analyses show that polymers containing 50:50 or 70:30 molar ratios of carboxyl groups to alkyl side chains of 6–8 carbons maximized peptide uptake, pH-dependent membrane disruption, and intracellular bioavailability and that this potentiation effect was maximized by pairing with CPPs with high cationic charge density. These results demonstrate a rapid, mild method for polymer modification of cell surfaces to potentiate intracellular delivery, endosome escape, and bioactivity of cationic peptides.