Background: Ethylenimine polymers (PEIs) belong to one of the most efficient family of cationic compounds for delivery of plasmid DNA into mammalian cells. The high transfection efficiencies are obtained even in the absence of endosomolytic agents such as fusogenic peptides or chloroquine, which is in contrast to most of the other cationic polymers. It has been hypothesized that the efficiency of PEI is due to its capacity to buffer the endosomes.
Methods: To investigate the importance of the acidification of endosomes during PEI-mediated DNA transfer we used proton pump inhibitors such as bafilomycin A1 and concanamycin A. Moreover, we tested whether PEI is able to destabilize natural membranes per se at neutral or acidic pH by performing erythrocyte lysis assays.
Results: PEI-mediated transfection in the presence of bafilomycin A1 resulted in a 7-74-fold decrease in reporter gene expression depending on the cell line used. In contrast, the efficiency of the monocationic lipid, DOTAP, was not importantly altered in the presence of the drug. Furthermore, the present data show that PEI cannot destabilize erythrocyte membranes, even at acidic pH, and that PEI, complexed or not to DNA, can increase the transfection efficiency of the cationic polymer, polylysine, when added at the same time to the cells.
Conclusions: The transfection efficiency of PEIs partially relies on their ability to capture the protons which are transferred into the endosomes during their acidification. In addition, PEI is able to deliver significant amounts of DNA into cells and the DNA complexes involved in the expression of the transgene escape within 4 h from the endosomes.