Efficient intracellular drug delivery and target specificity are often hampered by the presence of biological barriers. Thus, compounds that efficiently cross cell membranes are the key to improving the therapeutic value and on-target specificity of non-permeable drugs. The discovery of cell-penetrating peptides (CPPs) and the early design approaches through mimicking the natural penetration domains used by viruses have led to greater efficiency of intracellular delivery. Following these nature-inspired examples, a number of rationally designed CPPs has been developed. In this review, a variety of CPP designs will be described, including linear and flexible, positively charged and often amphipathic CPPs, and more rigid versions comprising cyclic, stapled, or dimeric and/or multivalent, self-assembled peptides or peptido-mimetics. The application of distinct design strategies to known physico-chemical properties of CPPs offers the opportunity to improve their penetration efficiency and/or internalization kinetics. This led to increased design complexity of new CPPs that does not always result in greater CPP activity. Therefore, the transition of CPPs to a clinical setting remains a challenge also due to the concomitant involvement of various internalization routes and heterogeneity of cells used in the in vitro studies.
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