The impact of physical and chemical modifications of nanoparticles on their biological function has been systemically investigated and exploited to improve their circulation and targeting. However, the impact of nanoparticles' flexibility (i.e., elastic modulus) on their function has been explored to a far lesser extent, and the potential benefits of tuning nanoparticle elasticity are not clear. Here, we describe a method to synthesize polyethylene glycol (PEG)-based hydrogel nanoparticles of uniform size (200 nm) with elastic moduli ranging from 0.255 to 3000 kPa. These particles are used to investigate the role of particle elasticity on key functions including blood circulation time, biodistribution, antibody-mediated targeting, endocytosis, and phagocytosis. Our results demonstrate that softer nanoparticles (10 kPa) offer enhanced circulation and subsequently enhanced targeting compared to harder nanoparticles (3000 kPa) in vivo. Furthermore, in vitro experiments show that softer nanoparticles exhibit significantly reduced cellular uptake in immune cells (J774 macrophages), endothelial cells (bEnd.3), and cancer cells (4T1). Tuning nanoparticle elasticity potentially offers a method to improve the biological fate of nanoparticles by offering enhanced circulation, reduced immune system uptake, and improved targeting.
Keywords: biodistribution; circulation; elasticity; nanoemulsion; nanogel; nanomedicine; nanoparticles; targeting.