Newly developed, bioinspired cell delivery vehicles

06-Aug-2021 - Germany

A research team headed by chemist Prof Bart Jan Ravoo and biochemist Prof Volker Gerke has designed nanocontainers made of sugar and protein components. These containers are taken up by cells through natural processes and can thereby transport substances that normally cannot penetrate the cell membrane – such as drugs or labelled substances for the investigation of cell functions – into cells. The study was published in “Advanced Science”.

Kudruk & Pottanam Chali et al./Adv Sci 2021 (modified colours)

Living human cancer cell in cell culture, its actin skeleton stained with fluorescent phalloidin. This toxic substance was only able to enter the cell by means of the newly developed nanocontainers.

Nanocontainers can transport substances into cells where they can then take effect. This is the method used in, for example, the mRNA vaccines currently being employed against Covid-19 as well as certain cancer drugs. In research, similar transporters can also be used to deliver labelled substances into cells in order to study basic cellular functions. To take advantage of their full potential, scientists are conducting intensive research into how nanocontainers interact with biological environments and how they have to be chemically constructed to deliver cargo into cells in the gentlest and most controllable way possible.

Scientists at the University of Münster have recently developed a new type of nanocontainer that is constructed entirely from biological components. Unlike other cargo transporters, these are not based on lipids but on sugar compounds which are sealed with a shell of protein structures – so-called polypeptides – the thickness of which is precisely tailored. “We do produce the components of our nanocontainers synthetically, but they are taken up by cells and – due to the overall structure we have developed – also degraded by them just like naturally occurring substances,” explains chemist Prof Bart Jan Ravoo. “For the degradation of the container shell inside the cell, we make use of two naturally occurring mechanisms – as a result, the transported substances are released rapidly, as soon as they arrive in the cell,” adds biochemist Prof Volker Gerke.

The scientists want to use the tiny nanocontainers, which are about 150 nanometers in diameter, to load cells with labelled biologically relevant lipids that can be used to study transport processes occurring within the cell membrane. In addition, they plan to further develop the chemical design of the containers in such a way that they are, for example, only taken up by certain types of cells or only release their cargo when stimulated by external light. In the future, transport systems built from sugar and protein components might also be suitable for applications in living organisms to deliver drugs specifically into certain tissues and cells. The study was published in the journal “Advanced Science”.

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