Pulmonary delivery of small interfering RNA (siRNA) is a promising therapeutic strategy for treating various respiratory diseases but an effective carrier for the delivery of siRNA into the cells of the lungs and a robust gene-silencing effect is still lacking. Previously, we reported that the KL4 peptide, a synthetic cationic peptide with a repeating KLLLL sequence, can mediate effective siRNA transfection in lung epithelial cells but its high hydrophobic leucine content, and hence poor water solubility, limits its application as a delivery vector. Here, we show that the covalent attachment of monodisperse poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) improves the solubility of KL4 and the uptake of its complex with siRNA into lung epithelial cells, such that very robust silencing is produced. All PEGylated KL4 peptides, with PEG length varying between 6 and 24 monomers, could bind and form nanosized complexes with siRNA, but the interaction between siRNA and peptides became weaker as the PEG chain length increased. All PEGylated KL4 peptides exhibited satisfactory siRNA transfection efficiency on three human lung epithelial cell lines, including A549 cells, Calu-3 cells, and BEAS-2B cells. The PEG12KL4 peptide, which contains 12 monomers of PEG, was optimal for siRNA delivery and also demonstrated a low risk of inflammatory response and toxicity in vivo following pulmonary administration.
Keywords: PEGylation; lung surfactant; monodisperse PEG; peptide; pulmonary delivery; siRNA transfection.