Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is often diagnosed when metastatic events have occurred. The early spread of circulating cancer cells expressing the CD44 receptor may play a crucial role in this process. In this study, we have investigated the cellular delivery ability and both in vitro and in vivo anti-tumoral activity of liposomes conjugated with two different low molecular weight hyaluronic acids (HA 4.8kDa and HA 12kDa), the primary ligand of CD44, and containing a lipophilic gemcitabine (GEM) pro-drug. By confocal microscopy and flow cytometry analyses, we demonstrate that the cellular uptake into a highly CD44-expressing pancreatic adenocarcinoma cell line is higher with HA-conjugated (12kDa>4.8kDa) than non-conjugated liposomes. Consistently, in vitro cytotoxic assays display an increased sensitivity towards GEM containing HA-liposomes, compared to non-conjugated liposomes. Conversely, CD44 non-expressing normal cells show a similar uptake and in vitro cytotoxicity with both HA-conjugated and non-conjugated liposomes. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the HA-liposomes are taken up into the cells via lipid raft-mediated endocytosis. All the liposome formulations containing GEM show a higher antitumoral activity than free GEM in a mouse xenograft tumor model of human pancreatic adenocarcinoma. The 12kDa HA-liposomes have the strongest efficiency, while non-conjugated liposomes and the 4.8kDa HA-liposomes are similarly active. Taken together, our results provide a strong rationale for further development of HA-conjugated liposomes to treat pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
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