Delivery of exogenous mRNA using lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) is a promising strategy for therapeutics. However, a bottleneck remains in the poor understanding of the parameters that correlate with endosomal escape versus cytotoxicity. To address this problem, we compared the endosomal distribution of six LNP-mRNA formulations of diverse chemical composition and efficacy, similar to those used in mRNA-based vaccines, in primary human adipocytes, fibroblasts, and HeLa cells. Surprisingly, we found that total uptake is not a sufficient predictor of delivery, and different LNPs vary considerably in endosomal distributions. Prolonged uptake impaired endosomal acidification, a sign of cytotoxicity, and caused mRNA to accumulate in compartments defective in cargo transport and unproductive for delivery. In contrast, early endocytic/recycling compartments have the highest probability for mRNA escape. By using super-resolution microscopy, we could resolve a single LNP-mRNA within subendosomal compartments and capture events of mRNA escape from endosomal recycling tubules. Our results change the view of the mechanisms of endosomal escape and define quantitative parameters to guide the development of mRNA formulations toward higher efficacy and lower cytotoxicity.
© 2021 Paramasivam et al.