A series of 3-guanidinopropyl methacrylamide (GPMA)-based polymeric gene delivery vehicles were developed via aqueous reversible addition-fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT) polymerization. The polymers have been evaluated for their cellular internalization ability, transfection efficiency, and cytotoxicity. Two homopolymers: P(GPMA20), P(GPMA34), were synthesized to study the effect of guanidium polymer length on delivery efficiency and toxicity. In addition, an N-acetyl-d-galactosamine (GalNAc)-based hydrophilic block was incorporated to produce diblock polymers, which provides a neutral hydrophilic block that sterically protects plasmid-polymer complexes (polyplexes) from colloidal aggregation and aids polyplex targeting to hepatocytes via binding to asialoglycoprotein receptors (ASGPRs). Polyplexes formed with P(GPMAx) (x = 20, 34) homopolymers were shown to be internalized via both energy-dependent and independent pathways, whereas polyplexes formed with block polymers were internalized through endocytosis. Notably, P(GPMAx) polyplexes enter cells very efficiently but are also very toxic to human hepatocellular carcinoma (HepG2) cells and triggered cell apoptosis. In comparison, the presence of a carbohydrate block in the polymer structures reduced the cytotoxicity of the polyplex formulations and increased gene delivery efficiency with HepG2 cells. Transfection efficiency and toxicity studies were also carried out with HEK 293T (human embryonic kidney) cells for comparison. Results showed that polyplexes formed with the P(GPMAx) homopolymers exhibit much higher transfection efficiency and lower toxicity with HEK 293T cells. The presence of the carbohydrate block did not further increase transfection efficiency in comparison to the homopolymers with HEK 293T cells, likely due to the lack of ASGPRs on the HEK 293T cell line. This study revealed that although guanidinium-based polymers have high membrane permeability, their application as plasmid delivery vehicles may be limited by their high cytotoxicity to certain cell types. Thus, the use of cell penetrating structures in polyplex formulations should be used with caution and carefully tailored toward individual cell/tissue types.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
We thank National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award Program (DP2OD006669-01) and University of Minnesota for financial support of this project.