Nanoparticles (NPs) based on amphiphilic block copolymers of polyethylene glycol (PEG) and biodegradable polyesters are of particular current interest in drug nanodelivery due to their easily manipulated properties. The interaction of these NPs with biological environments is highly influenced by shell features, which drive biological identity after administration. To widen the strategies available for tuning particle surface chemistry, here we developed a panel of amine-bearing PEGylated NPs with a poly(ε-caprolactone) (PCL) core for the delivery of lipophilic drugs, and investigated the impact of NP modifications on their interaction with abundant circulating proteins (human serum albumin—HSA—and mucin), as well as their transport through biological barriers (artificial mucus—AM, extracellular matrix—ECM). We prepared NPs based on a diamino-terminated PCL (amine-NPs) and its mixture with PEG-PCL copolymers (amine/PEG-NPs) at different PEG molecular weights by nanoprecipitation, as well as corresponding NPs of PEG-PCL (PEG-NPs). The presence of an amine-bearing polymer resulted in NPs with a net positive charge and a zeta potential dependent on the length of PEG in the copolymer. Amine/PEG-NPs had a larger fixed aqueous layer thickness as compared to PEG-NPs, suggesting that PEG conformation is affected by the presence of positive charges. In general, amine-bearing NPs promptly interacted with the dysopsonic protein HSA, due to electrostatic interactions, and lose stability, thereby undergoing time-related aggregation. On the other hand, amine/PEG-NPs interaction with mucin induced switching to a negative surface charge but did not alter the quality of the dispersion. The transport kinetics of NPs through a layer of artificial mucus and tumor extracellular matrix was studied by means of fluorescent NPs based upon FRET. Amine/PEG-NPs did not cross the ECM, but they were promptly transported through the AM, with swifter transport noted at increasing MWs of PEG in the copolymer. Finally, we demonstrated that all the different NP types developed in this study are internalized by human monocytes and, despite the positive charge, they did not induce a measurable inflammatory effect. In conclusion, we showed that the concurrent presence of both PEG and amine groups on NP surface is a promising strategy for directing their interaction with body compartments. While PEG-NPs are confirmed for their capacity to cross ECM-like compartments, amine/PEG-NPs are revealed as a powerful platform to widen the arsenal of nanotools available for overcoming mucus-covered epithelia.
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