Glycocalyx Components Detune the Cellular Uptake of Gold Nanoparticles in a Size- and Charge-Dependent Manner

ACS Appl Bio Mater. 2023 Jan 16;6(1):64-73. doi: 10.1021/acsabm.2c00595. Epub 2022 Oct 14.


Functionalized nanoparticles (NPs) are widely used in targeted drug delivery and biomedical imaging due to their penetration into living cells. The outer coating of most cells is a sugar-rich layer of the cellular glycocalyx, presumably playing an important part in any uptake processes. However, the exact role of the cellular glycocalyx in NP uptake is still uncovered. Here, we in situ monitored the cellular uptake of gold NPs─functionalized with positively charged alkaline thiol (TMA)─into adhered cancer cells with or without preliminary glycocalyx digestion. Proteoglycan (PG) components of the glycocalyx were treated by the chondroitinase ABC enzyme. It acts on chondroitin 4-sulfate, chondroitin 6-sulfate, and dermatan sulfate and slowly on hyaluronate. The uptake measurements of HeLa cells were performed by applying a high-throughput label-free optical biosensor based on resonant waveguide gratings. The positively charged gold NPs were used with different sizes [d = 2.6, 4.2, and 7.0 nm, small (S), medium (M), and large(L), respectively]. Negatively charged citrate-capped tannic acid (CTA, d = 5.5 nm) NPs were also used in control experiments. Real-time biosensor data confirmed the cellular uptake of the functionalized NPs, which was visually proved by transmission electron microscopy. It was found that the enzymatic digestion facilitated the entry of the positively charged S- and M-sized NPs, being more pronounced for the M-sized. Other enzymes digesting different components of the glycocalyx were also employed, and the results were compared. Glycosaminoglycan digesting heparinase III treatment also increased, while glycoprotein and glycolipid modifying neuraminidase decreased the NP uptake by HeLa cells. This suggests that the sialic acid residues increase, while heparan sulfate decreases the uptake of positively charged NPs. Our results raise the hypothesis that cellular uptake of 2-4 nm positively charged NPs is facilitated by glycoprotein and glycolipid components of the glycocalyx but inhibited by PGs.

Keywords: RWG biosensor; cell adhesion; cellular uptake kinetics; enzyme digestion; glycocalyx; gold nanoparticles.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Chondroitin Sulfates
  • Glycocalyx*
  • Glycosaminoglycans
  • Gold / chemistry
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Metal Nanoparticles* / chemistry


  • Gold
  • Glycosaminoglycans
  • Chondroitin Sulfates