Xin Xu, Zhuchao Zhou, Shixian Lv, Lichen Yin, Fangfang Li, Qiurong Deng, Yongjuan Li
The development of potent yet nontoxic membrane-penetrating materials is in high demand for effective intracellular gene delivery. We have recently developed α-helical polypeptides which afford potent membrane activities to facilitate intracellular DNA delivery via both endocytosis and the nonendocytic “pore formation” mechanism. Endocytosis will cause endosomal entrapment of the DNA cargo, while excessive “pore formation” would cause appreciable cytotoxicity. Additionally, helical polypeptides with stiff, rodlike structure suffer from low siRNA binding affinity. To address such critical issues, we herein incorporated various aromatic domains (benzyl, naphthyl, biphenyl, anthryl, and pyrenyl) into the side-chain terminals of guanidine-rich, helical polypeptides, wherein the flat-rigid shape, π-electronic structures of aromatic motifs “self-activated” the membrane-penetrating capabilities of polypeptides to promote intracellular gene delivery. Benzyl (Bn)- and naphthyl (Naph)-modified polypeptides demonstrated the highest DNA uptake level that outperformed the unmodified polypeptide, P2, by ∼4 fold. More importantly, compared with P2, Bn- and Naph-modified polypeptides allowed more DNA cargos to be internalized via the nonendocytic pathway, which significantly bypassed the endosomal entrapment and accordingly enhanced the transfection efficiency by up to 42 fold, outperforming PEI 25k as the commercial reagent by 3–4 orders of magnitude. The aromatic modification also improved the siRNA condensation capability of polypeptides, achieving notably enhanced gene-silencing efficiency against tumor necrosis factor-α to treat acute hepatic inflammation. Furthermore, we revealed that aromaticity-augmented membrane activity was accompanied by comparable or even significantly reduced “pore formation” capability, thus leading to diminished cytotoxicity at high concentrations. This study therefore provides a promising approach to manipulate the membrane activities and penetration mechanisms of polycations, which overcomes the multiple critical barriers preventing effective and safe gene delivery.