Mitochondrial targeting and entry, two crucial steps in fighting severe diseases resulting from mitochondria dysfunction, pose important challenges in current nanomedicine. Cell-penetrating peptides or targeting groups, such as Rhodamine-B (Rho), are known to localize in mitochondria, but little is known on how to enhance their effectiveness through structural properties of polymeric carriers. To address this issue, we prepared 8 copolymers of 3-dimethyl(methacryloyloxyethyl)ammonium propane sulfonate and poly(ethyleneglycol) methacrylate, p(DMAPS-ran-PEGMA) (molecular weight, 18.0 < M n < 74.0 kg/mol) with two different endgroups. We labeled them with Rho groups attached along the chain or on one of the two endgroups (α or ω). From studies by flow cytometry and confocal fluorescence microscopy of the copolymers internalization in HeLa cells in the absence and presence of pharmacological inhibitors, we established that the polymers cross the cell membrane foremost by translocation and also by endocytosis, primarily clathrin-dependent endocytosis. The most effective mitochondrial entry was achieved by copolymers of M n < 30.0 kg/mol, lightly grafted with PEG chains (< 5 mol %) labeled with Rho in the ω-position. Our findings may be generalized to the uptake and mitochondrial targeting of prodrugs and imaging agents with a similar polymeric scaffold.
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