In this study, native chemical ligation (NCL) was used as a selective cross-linking method to form core-cross-linked thermosensitive polymeric micelles for drug delivery applications. To this end, two complementary ABA triblock copolymers having polyethylene glycol (PEG) as midblock were synthesized by atom transfer radical polymerization (ATRP). The thermosensitive poly isopropylacrylamide (PNIPAM) outer blocks of the polymers were copolymerized with either N-(2-hydroxypropyl)methacrylamide-cysteine (HPMA-Cys), P(NIPAM-co-HPMA-Cys)-PEG-P(NIPAM-co-HPMA-Cys) (PNC) or N-(2-hydroxypropyl)methacrylamide-ethylthioglycolate succinic acid (HPMA-ETSA), P(NIPAM-co-HPMA-ETSA)-PEG-P(NIPAM-co-HPMA-ETSA) (PNE). Mixing of these polymers in aqueous solution followed by heating to 50 °C resulted in the formation of thermosensitive flower-like micelles. Subsequently, native chemical ligation in the core of micelles resulted in stabilization of the micelles with a Z-average of 65 nm at body temperature. Decreasing the temperature to 10 °C only affected the size of the micelles (increased to 90 nm) but hardly affected the polydispersity index (PDI) and aggregation number (Nagg) confirming covalent stabilization of the micelles by NCL. CryoTEM images showed micelles with an uniform spherical shape and dark patches close to the corona of micelles were observed in the tomographic view. The dark patches represent more dense areas in the micelles which coincide with the higher content of HPMA-Cys/ETSA close to the PEG chain revealed by the polymerization kinetics study. Notably, this cross-linking method provides the possibility for conjugation of functional molecules either by using the thiol moieties still present after NCL or by simply adjusting the molar ratio between the polymers (resulting in excess cysteine or thioester moieties) during micelle formation. Furthermore, in vitro cell experiments demonstrated that fluorescently labeled micelles were successfully taken up by HeLa cells while cell viability remained high even at high micelle concentrations. These results demonstrate the potential of these micelles for drug delivery applications.
Full Access Link: Biomacromolecules