A critical analysis of methods used to investigate the cellular uptake and subcellular localization of RNA therapeutics

Nucleic Acids Res. 2020 Aug 20;48(14):7623-7639. doi: 10.1093/nar/gkaa576.


RNA therapeutics are a promising strategy to treat genetic diseases caused by the overexpression or aberrant splicing of a specific protein. The field has seen major strides in the clinical efficacy of this class of molecules, largely due to chemical modifications and delivery strategies that improve nuclease resistance and enhance cell penetration. However, a major obstacle in the development of RNA therapeutics continues to be the imprecise, difficult, and often problematic nature of most methods used to measure cell penetration. Here, we review these methods and clearly distinguish between those that measure total cellular uptake of RNA therapeutics, which includes both productive and non-productive uptake, and those that measure cytosolic/nuclear penetration, which represents only productive uptake. We critically analyze the benefits and drawbacks of each method. Finally, we use key examples to illustrate how, despite rigorous experimentation and proper controls, our understanding of the mechanism of gymnotic uptake of RNA therapeutics remains limited by the methods commonly used to analyze RNA delivery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aptamers, Nucleotide / therapeutic use
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism
  • Cytosol / metabolism
  • Genetic Diseases, Inborn / drug therapy
  • Genetic Techniques
  • Humans
  • MicroRNAs / therapeutic use
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Oligonucleotides, Antisense / therapeutic use
  • RNA / chemistry
  • RNA / metabolism*
  • RNA / pharmacokinetics
  • RNA / therapeutic use*
  • RNA, Small Interfering / therapeutic use
  • Spectrometry, Fluorescence


  • Aptamers, Nucleotide
  • MicroRNAs
  • Oligonucleotides, Antisense
  • RNA, Small Interfering
  • RNA