Purpose: Chitosan has recently been demonstrated to effectively enhance the absorption of hydrophilic drugs such as peptides and proteins across nasal and intestinal epithelia (1-3). In this study, the effect of the chemical composition and molecular weight of chitosans on epithelial permeability and toxicity was investigated using monolayers of human intestinal epithelial Caco-2 cells as a model epithelium.
Methods: Eight chitosans varying in degree of acetylation (DA) and molecular weight were studied. The incompletely absorbed hydrophilic marker molecule 14C-mannitol was used as a model drug to assess absorption enhancement. Changes in intracellular dehydrogenase activity and cellular morphology were used to assess toxicity.
Results: Chitosans with a low DA (1 and 15%) were active as absorption enhancers at low and high molecular weights. However, these chitosans displayed a clear dose-dependent toxicity. Chitosans with DAs of 35 and 49% enhanced the transport of 14C-mannitol at high molecular weights only, with low toxicity. One chitosan (DA = 35%; MW = 170 kD) was found to have especially advantageous properties such as an early onset of action, very low toxicity, and a flat dose-absorption enhancement response relationship.
Conclusions: The structural features of chitosans determining absorption enhancement are not correlated with those determining toxicity, which makes it possible to select chitosans with maximal effect on absorption and minimal toxicity.