Theranostics 2019; 9(9):2505-2525. doi:10.7150/thno.33280

Research Paper

“Navigate-dock-activate” anti-tumor strategy: Tumor micromilieu charge-switchable, hierarchically activated nanoplatform with ultrarapid tumor-tropic accumulation for trackable photothermal/chemotherapy

Kondareddy Cherukula1, Saji Uthaman2, In-Kyu Park1✉

1. Department of Biomedical Sciences, Chonnam National University Medical School, Hwasun, Jeollanam-do, 58128, Republic of Korea.
2. Department of Polymer Science and Engineering, Chungnam National University, 99 Daehak-ro, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 34134, Republic of Korea


The delivery of therapeutics into tumors remains a challenge in nanoparticle-mediated drug delivery. However, effective therapies such as photothermal therapy (PTT) are limited by quick systemic clearance and non-specific biodistribution. Anti-tumor strategies tailored to accommodate both tumor accumulation/retention and cellular internalization under a single platform would be a promising strategy. This work demonstrates a hierarchical activating strategy that would exhibit enhanced circulation and rapid tumor-tropism as well as facilitate tumor penetration, followed by tumor-specific drug release to realize trackable photothermal/chemotherapy.

Methods: We engineered a lithocholic acid-conjugated disulfide-linked polyethyleneimine micelle (LAPMi) loaded with paclitaxel (LAPMi-PTX, L), followed by the electrostatic adsorption of indocyanine green (ICG, I) on LAPMI-PTX and subsequently coated them with thermosensitive DPPC and DSPE-PEG-NH2 lipids (L), producing Lipid/ICG/LAPMi-PTX (LIL-PTX) nanoparticles (NPs). The characteristics of NPs, including physicochemical characterization, photothermal & pH responsiveness, cell uptake, tumor spheroid penetration, anti-tumor efficacy and hierarchical activation of LIL-PTX NPs were investigated in vitro and in vivo by using CT26 cell line. The anti-metastatic potential of LIL-PTX NPs were demonstrated using 4T1 orthotopic tumor model.

Results: The NPs synthesized possessed charge switchability in the mildly acidic pH, and were laser- and pH-responsive. Dual stimuli-responsive nature of LIL-PTX NPs improved the disposition of therapeutics to the tumor, reflected by enhanced intracellular uptake, tumor spheroid penetration and in vitro cytotoxicity studies. LIL-PTX NPs readily switched its surface charge from neutral to positive upon reaching the tumor milieu, thus resulting in rapid tumor tropism and accumulation. Under near-infrared laser irradiation, the thermosensitive lipids on LIL-PTX NPs were deshielded, and the tumor-penetrating LAPMi-PTX was subsequently exposed to the tumor milieu, thus resulting in enhanced intracellular internalization. Next, LAPMi-PTX evaded the endo-lysosomes, thereby releasing the PTX through the degradation of LAPMi mediated by intracellular GSH in the tumor. LIL-PTX NPs significantly improved the therapy by eradicating primary tumors completely and suppressing their subsequent lung metastasis.

Conclusion: The improved therapeutic index is due to enhanced passive targeting by rapid tumor-tropic accumulation and tumor penetration by laser-driven exposure of LAPMi, thereby improving the therapeutic delivery for image-guided photothermal/chemotherapy.

Keywords: photothermal therapy, stimuli-responsive, charge switchable, NIR laser, hierarchical targeting systems

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY-NC) license ( See for full terms and conditions.
How to cite this article:
Cherukula K, Uthaman S, Park IK. “Navigate-dock-activate” anti-tumor strategy: Tumor micromilieu charge-switchable, hierarchically activated nanoplatform with ultrarapid tumor-tropic accumulation for trackable photothermal/chemotherapy. Theranostics 2019; 9(9):2505-2525. doi:10.7150/thno.33280. Available from