, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 373-380
Date: 21 Mar 2005

Cross-linked Small Polyethylenimines: While Still Nontoxic, Deliver DNA Efficiently to Mammalian Cells in Vitro and in Vivo

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Polyethylenimine (PEI) is among the most efficient nonviral gene delivery vectors. Its efficiency and cytotoxicity depend on molecular weight, with the 25-kDa PEI being most efficient but cytotoxic. Smaller PEIs are noncytotoxic but less efficient. Enhancement in gene delivery efficiency with minimal cytotoxicity by cross-linking of small PEIs via potentially biodegradable linkages was explored herein. The hypothesis was that cross-linking would raise the polycation’s effective molecular weight and hence the transfection efficiency, while biodegradable linkages would undergo the intracellular breakdown after DNA delivery and hence not lead to cytotoxicity. Toward this goal, we carried out cross-linking of branched 2-kDa PEI and its 1:1 (w/w) mixture with a linear 423-Da PEI via ester- and/or amide-bearing linkages; the in vitro and in vivo gene delivery efficiency, as well as toxicity to mammalian cells, of the resultant cross-linked polycations were investigated.


The efficiency of the cross-linked PEIs in delivering in vitro a plasmid containing β-galactosidase gene and their cytotoxicity were investigated in monkey kidney cells (COS-7). Dynamic light scattering was used to compare the relative DNA condensation efficiency of the unmodified and cross-linked PEIs. In vivo gene delivery efficiency was evaluated by intratracheal delivery in mice of the complexes of a luciferase-encoding plasmid and the PEIs and estimating the luciferase expression in the lungs.


Cross-linking boosted the gene delivery efficiency of the small PEIs by 40- to 550-fold in vitro; the efficiency of the most potent conjugates even exceeded by an order of magnitude that of the branched 25-kDa PEI. Effective condensation of DNA was evident from the fact that the mean diameter of the complexes of the cross-linked PEIs was some 300 nm with a narrow size distribution, while the complexes of the unmodified small PEIs exhibited a mean size of >700 nm with a very broad size distribution. At concentrations where the 25-kDa PEI resulted in >95% cell death, the conjugates afforded nearly full cell viability. The cross-linked PEIs were 17 to 80 times m ore efficient than the unmodified ones in vivo; furthermore, their efficiencies were up to twice that of the 25-kDa PEI.


Cross-linking of small PEIs with judiciously designed amide- and ester-bearing linkers boosts their gene delivery efficiency both in vitro and in vivo without increasing the cytotoxicity. The high efficiency is dependent on the nature of the linkages and the PEIs used.