Aggregation of chitosan nanoparticles in cell culture: Reasons and resolutions

Int J Pharm. 2020 Mar 30:578:119119. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpharm.2020.119119. Epub 2020 Feb 5.


Nanoparticles are promising drug delivery systems which are flexible for targeting specific tissues to reduce therapeutic doses and minimize side effects. Nanoparticles should be maintained with high stability and uniformity; however, aggregation is a major challenge which commonly impairs stability and efficacy of nanocarriers. In this study, we revisited the factors that influence the stability of chitosan (Protasan™ UP CL113) nanoparticles prepared with ionotropic gelation, widely recognized to be prone to aggregation, and proposed a model to overcome the negative influence of aggregation while testing in vitro efficacy. Decrease in pH due to cell proliferation, 37 °C cell culture temperature, serum in culture media, and incubation time were considered as factors causing chitosan nanoparticles' aggregation which deteriorates cell culture assay readouts, increases optical density values and leads to false-positive results. Size and stability studies were not sufficient to avoid misleading results in cell culture. The chitosan nanoparticle aggregation was almost inevitable under standard culture conditions; nevertheless, the removal of nanoparticles before aggregation but after an incubation period long enough for efficient cellular uptake was determined as a feasible and inexpensive method for testing the in vitro efficacy of polymeric nanoformulations. This approach was used with blank and gemcitabine-loaded chitosan nanoparticles on pancreatic cancer cells and proved to be useful for reliable cytotoxicity results.

Keywords: Aggregation; Cancer; Cell culture; Chitosan; Drug delivery; Polymeric nanoparticle.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Culture Techniques / methods
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Chitosan / chemistry*
  • Deoxycytidine / analogs & derivatives
  • Deoxycytidine / chemistry
  • Drug Carriers / chemistry
  • Drug Delivery Systems / methods
  • Gels / chemistry
  • Gemcitabine
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Nanoparticles / chemistry*
  • Particle Size
  • Polymers / chemistry
  • Temperature


  • Drug Carriers
  • Gels
  • Polymers
  • Deoxycytidine
  • Chitosan
  • Gemcitabine