Gemcitabine is a chemotherapeutic used clinically to treat a variety of cancers. However, because it lacks tumor cell specificity, gemcitabine may cause off-target cytotoxicity and adversely impact patients. To impart cancer cell specificity to gemcitabine and improve its therapeutic efficacy, we synthesized a unique aptamer-drug conjugate that carries a high gemcitabine payload (three molecules) via a dendrimer structure and enzymatically cleavable linkers for controlled intracellular drug release. First, linker-gemcitabinedendrimer-linker-gemcitabine products were produced, which had significantly lower cytotoxicity than an equimolar amount of free drug. Biochemical analysis revealed that lysosomal cathepsin B protease rapidly cleaved the dendritic linkers and released the conjugated gemcitabine as a free drug. Subsequently, the dendrimer-linker-gemcitabine was coupled with a cell-specific aptamer to form aptamer-gemcitabine conjugates. Functional assays confirmed that, under aptamer guidance, aptamer-gemcitabine conjugates were selectively bound to and then internalized by triple-negative breast cancer cells. Cellular therapy studies indicated that the aptamer-gemcitabine conjugates potentiated cytotoxic activity to targeted cancer cells but did not affect off-target control cells. Our study demonstrates a novel approach to aptamer-mediated targeted drug delivery that combines a high drug payload and an enzymatically controlled drug release switch to achieve higher therapeutic efficacy and fewer off-target effects relative to free-drug chemotherapy.
Keywords: aptamer–drug conjugates; cell-specific chemotherapy; controlled intracellular drug release; enzymatically cleavable linker; high gemcitabine payload; targeted drug delivery.