Translocation Mechanisms of Cell-Penetrating Polymers Identified by Induced Proton Dynamics

Langmuir. 2019 Jun 18;35(24):8167-8173. doi: 10.1021/acs.langmuir.9b00856. Epub 2019 May 30.


Unlike the majority of nanomaterials designed for cellular uptake via endocytic pathways, some of the functional nanoparticles and nanospheres directly enter the cytoplasm without overt biomembrane injuries. Previously, we have shown that a water-soluble nanoaggregate composed of amphiphilic random copolymer of 2-methacryloyloxyethyl phosphorylcholine (MPC) and n-butyl methacrylate (BMA), poly(MPC- random-BMA) (PMB), passes live cell membranes in an endocytosis-free manner. Yet, details in its translocation mechanism remain elusive due to the lack of proper analytical methods. To understand this phenomenon experimentally, we elaborated the original pH perturbation assay that is extremely sensitive to the pore formation on cell membranes. The ultimate sensitivity originates from the detection of the smallest indicator H+ (H3O+) passed through the molecularly sized transmembrane pores upon challenge by exogenous reagents. We revealed that water-soluble PMB at the 30 mol % MPC unit (i.e., PMB30W) penetrated into the cytosol of model mammalian cells without any proton leaks, in contrast to conventional cell-penetrating peptides, TAT and R8 as well as the surfactant, Triton X-100. While exposure of PMB30W permeabilized cytoplasmic lactate dehydrogenase out of the cells, indicating the alteration of cell membrane polarity by partitioning of amphiphilic PMB30W into the lipid bilayers. Nevertheless, the biomembrane alterations by PMB30W did not exhibit cytotoxicity. In summary, elucidating translocation mechanisms by proton dynamics will guide the design of nanomaterials with controlled permeabilization to cell membranes for bioengineering applications.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Hep G2 Cells
  • Humans
  • Methacrylates / chemistry
  • Nanoparticles / chemistry*
  • Phosphorylcholine / analogs & derivatives
  • Phosphorylcholine / chemistry
  • Polymers / chemistry*
  • Polymers / toxicity
  • Protons
  • Solubility


  • Methacrylates
  • Polymers
  • Protons
  • Phosphorylcholine
  • poly(2-methacryloyloxyethyl phosphorylcholine-co-n-butyl methacrylate)
  • 2-methacryloyloxyethyl phosphorylcholine
  • butyl methacrylate