Folic acid-capped PEGylated magnetic nanoparticles enter cancer cells mostly via clathrin-dependent endocytosis
V. Background This work is focused on mechanisms of uptake in cancer cells of rationally designed, covalently assembled nanoparticles, made of superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (SPIONs), fluorophores (doxorubicin or Nile Blue), polyethylene glycol (PEG) and folic acid (FA), referred hereinafter as SFP-FA. Methods SFP-FA were characterized by DLS, zetametry and fluorescence spectroscopy. The SFP-FA uptake in cancer cells was monitored using fluorescence-based methods like fluorescence-assisted cell sorting, CLSM with single-photon and two-photon excitation. The SFP-FA endocytosis was also analyzed with electron microscopy approaches: TEM, HAADF-STEM and EELS. Results The SFP-FA have zeta potential below − 6 mW and stable hydrodynamic diameter close to 100 nm in aqueous suspensions of pH range from 5 to 8. They contain ca. 109 PEG-FA, 480 PEG-OCH3and 22–27 fluorophore molecules per SPION. The fluorophores protected under the PEG shell allows a reliable detection of intracellular NPs. SFP-FA readily enter into all the cancer cell lines studied and accumulate in lysosomes, mostly via clathrin-dependent endocytosis, whatever the FR status on the cells. Conclusions The present study highlights the advantages of rational design of nanosystems as well as the possible involvement of direct molecular interactions of PEG and FA with cellular membranes, not limited to FA-FR recognition, in the mechanisms of their endocytosis. General significance Composition, magnetic and optical properties of the SFP-FA as well their ability to enter cancer cells are promising for their applications in cancer theranosis. Combination of complementary analytical approaches is relevant to understand the nanoparticles behavior in suspension and in contact with cells.