Activation of complement by therapeutic liposomes and other lipid excipient-based therapeutic products: prediction and prevention

Adv Drug Deliv Rev. 2011 Sep 16;63(12):1020-30. doi: 10.1016/j.addr.2011.06.017. Epub 2011 Jul 14.


Some therapeutic liposomes and lipid excipient-based anticancer drugs are recognized by the immune system as foreign, leading to a variety of adverse immune phenomena. One of them is complement (C) activation, the cause, or major contributing factor to a hypersensitivity syndrome called C activation-related pseudoallergy (CARPA). CARPA represents a novel subcategory of acute (type I) hypersensitivity reactions (HSR), which is mostly mild, transient, and preventable by appropriate precautions. However, in an occasional patient, it can be severe or even lethal. Because a main manifestation of C activation is cardiopulmonary distress, CARPA may be a safety issue primarily in cardiac patients. Along with an overview of the various types of liposome-immune system interactions, this review updates the experimental and clinical information on CARPA to different therapeutic liposomes and lipid excipient-based (micellar) anticancer drugs, including PEGylated liposomal doxorubicin sulfate (PLD, Doxil®) and paclitaxel (Taxol®). The substantial individual variation of in vitro and in vivo findings reflects an extremely complex immune phenomenon involving multiple, redundant pathways of C activation, signal transduction in allergy-mediating cells and vasoactive mediator actions at the effector cell level. The latest advances in this field include the proposal of doxorubicin-induced shape changes and aggregation of liposomes in Doxil as possible contributing factors to CARPA caused by PLD, and the finding that Doxil-induced immune suppression prevents HSR to co-administered carboplatin, a significant benefit of Doxil in combination chemotherapy with carboplatin. The review evaluates the use of in vitro C assays and the porcine liposome-induced cardiopulmonary distress model for predicting CARPA. It is concluded that CARPA may become a frequent safety issue in the upcoming era of nanomedicines, necessitating its prevention at an early stage of nanomedicine R&D.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antineoplastic Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / immunology*
  • Complement Activation / drug effects*
  • Complement Activation / immunology
  • Complement System Proteins / immunology*
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / etiology
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / immunology
  • Excipients / administration & dosage
  • Humans
  • Lipids / administration & dosage
  • Lipids / immunology
  • Liposomes / administration & dosage*
  • Liposomes / immunology*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Excipients
  • Lipids
  • Liposomes
  • Complement System Proteins