Thermally Responsive Hydrogel-Nanoparticle Composite Materials for Therapeutic Delivery

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Strong, Laura Elizabeth


West, Jennifer L

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Cancer is currently the second leading cause of death in the United States. Although many treatment options exist, some of the most common, including radiotherapy and chemotherapy, are restricted by dose-limiting toxicities. In addition, the largest hurdle for translating novel biological therapies such as siRNA into the clinic is lack of an efficient delivery mechanism to get the therapeutic into malignant cells. This work aims to improve this situation by engineering a minimally invasive controlled release system that specifically delivers therapeutics to the site of malignant tissue. This platform consists of two novel material components: a thermally responsive poly[N-isopropylacrylamide-co-acrylamide] (NIPAAm-co-AAm) hydrogel and gold-silica nanoshells. Therapeutic molecules are encapsulated within a poly(NIPAAm-co-AAm) hydrogel carrier, leading to increased serum stability, circulation time, and decreased exposure to off-site tissues. Additionally, gold-silica nanoshells embedded within this hydrogel will be used to optically trigger therapeutic release from the carrier. This hydrogel-nanoshell composite material was designed to be swollen under physiologic conditions (37 oC), and expel large amounts of water and absorbed molecules at higher temperatures (40-45 oC). This phase transition can be optically triggered by embedded gold-silica nanoshells, which rapidly transfer near-infrared (NIR) light energy into heat due to the surface plasmon resonance phenomena. NIR light can deeply penetrate biological tissue with little attenuation or damage to tissue, and upon exposure to such light a rapid temperature increase, hydrogel collapse, and drug expulsion will occur. Ultimately, these drug-loaded hydrogel-nanoshell composite particles would be injected intravenously, passively accumulate in tumor tissue due to the enhanced permeability and retention (EPR) effect, and then can be externally triggered to release their therapeutic payload by exposure to an external NIR laser. This dissertation describes the synthesis, characterization, and validation of such a controlled therapeutic delivery platform.

Initial validation of poly(NIPAAm-co-AAm)-gold nanoshell composites to act as a material in site-specific cancer therapeutic delivery was accomplished using bulk hydrogel-nanoparticle composite disks. The composite material underwent a phase transition from a hydrated to a collapsed state following exposure to NIR light, indicating the ability of the NIR absorption by the nanoshells to sufficiently drive this transition. The composite material was loaded with either doxorubicin or a DNA duplex (a model nucleic acid therapeutic), two cancer therapeutics with differing physical and chemical properties. Release of both therapeutics was dramatically enhanced by NIR light exposure, causing 2-5 fold increase in drug release. Drug delivery profiles were influenced by both the molecular size of the drug as well as its chemical properties.

Towards translation of this material into in vivo applications, the hydrogel-nanoshell composite material was synthesized as injectable-sized particles. Such particles retained the same thermal properties as the bulk material, collapsing in size from ~330 nm to ~270 nm upon NIR exposure. Furthermore, these particles were loaded with the chemotherapeutic doxorubicin and NIR exposure triggered a burst release of the drug payload over only 3 min. In vitro, this platform provided increased delivery of doxorubicin to colon carcinoma cells compared to free-drug controls, indicating the irradiated nanoshells may increase cell membrane permeability and increase cellular uptake of the drug. This phenomena was further explored to enhance cellular uptake of siRNA, a large anionic therapeutic which cannot diffuse into cells easily.

This work advances the development of an injectable, optically-triggered delivery platform. With continued optimization and in vivo validation, this approach may offer an novel treatment option for cancer management.





Strong, Laura Elizabeth (2014). Thermally Responsive Hydrogel-Nanoparticle Composite Materials for Therapeutic Delivery. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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