Membrane and nuclear permeabilization by polymeric pdna vehicles: Efficient method for gene delivery or mechanism of cytotoxicity?

Giovanna Grandinetti, Adam E. Smith, Theresa M. Reineke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Scopus citations


The aim of this study is to compare the cytotoxicity mechanisms of linear PEI to two analogous polymers synthesized by our group: a hydroxyl-containing poly(l-tartaramidoamine) (T4) and a version containing an alkyl chain spacer poly(adipamidopentaethylenetetramine) (A4) by studying the cellular responses to polymer transfection. We have also synthesized analogues of T4 with different molecular weights (degrees of polymerization of 6, 12, and 43) to examine the role of molecular weight on the cytotoxicity mechanisms. Several mechanisms of polymer-induced cytotoxicity are investigated, including plasma membrane permeabilization, the formation of potentially harmful polymer degradation products during transfection including reactive oxygen species, and nuclear membrane permeabilization. We hypothesized that since cationic polymers are capable of disrupting the plasma membrane, they may also be capable of disrupting the nuclear envelope, which could be a potential mechanism of how the pDNA is delivered into the nucleus (other than nuclear envelope breakdown during mitosis). Using flow cytometry and confocal microscopy, we show that the polycations with the highest amount of protein expression and toxicity, PEI and T4 43, are capable of inducing nuclear membrane permeability. This finding is important for the field of nucleic acid delivery in that direct nucleus permeabilization could be not only a mechanism for pDNA nuclear import but also a potential mechanism of cytotoxicity and cell death. We also show that the production of reactive oxygen species is not a main mechanism of cytotoxicity, and that the presence or absence of hydroxyl groups and polymer length play a role in polyplex size and charge in addition to protein expression efficiency and toxicity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)523-538
Number of pages16
JournalMolecular pharmaceutics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 5 2012


  • PGAAs
  • apoptosis
  • gene delivery polymers
  • glycopolymer
  • polyethylenimine
  • toxicity


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