Theranostics 2021; 11(18):8692-8705. doi:10.7150/thno.60437 This issue

Research Paper

Co-delivery of autophagy inhibitor and gemcitabine using a pH-activatable core-shell nanobomb inhibits pancreatic cancer progression and metastasis

Xiaoxiao Chen#, Yuan Tao#, Manmin He, Miao Deng, Rong Guo, Qinglin Sheng, Xuhui Wang, Kebai Ren, Ting Li, Xuan He, Shuya Zang, Zhirong Zhang, Man Li, Qin He

Key Laboratory of Drug-Targeting and Drug Delivery System of the Education Ministry and Sichuan Province, Sichuan Engineering Laboratory for Plant-Sourced Drug and Sichuan Research Center for Drug Precision Industrial Technology, West China School of Pharmacy, Sichuan University, Chengdu 610041, People's Republic of China.
#Contributed equally to this work.

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( See for full terms and conditions.
Chen X, Tao Y, He M, Deng M, Guo R, Sheng Q, Wang X, Ren K, Li T, He X, Zang S, Zhang Z, Li M, He Q. Co-delivery of autophagy inhibitor and gemcitabine using a pH-activatable core-shell nanobomb inhibits pancreatic cancer progression and metastasis. Theranostics 2021; 11(18):8692-8705. doi:10.7150/thno.60437. Available from

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Graphic abstract

Background: Metastasis is one of the main reasons for the high mortality associated with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), and autophagy regulates the metastatic migration of tumor cells, their invasion of tissues, and their formation of focal adhesions. Inhibiting autophagy may suppress tumor growth and metastasis, but the abundant extracellular matrix hinders the deep penetration of therapeutic agents.

Methods: To enhance the penetration of drugs that can inhibit metastasis of pancreatic cancer, a pH-responsive drug delivery system was formulated. Gemcitabine (GEM), a first-line chemotherapeutic drug against PDAC, was loaded in 6PA-modified DGL (PDGL) nanoparticles to afford PDGL-GEM. Then PDGL-GEM was co-precipitated with the autophagy inhibitor chloroquine phosphate (CQ) and calcium phosphate to formulate PDGL-GEM@CAP/CQ. The size and morphology of the resulting “nanobomb” PDGL-GEM@CAP/CQ were characterized, and their uptake into cells, cytotoxicity and ability to inhibit autophagy were analyzed at pH 6.5 and 7.4. The anti-tumor and anti-metastasis effects of the nanobomb were explored on mice carrying Pan 02 pancreatic tumor xenografts or orthotopic tumors.

Results: The pH-induced dissolution of calcium phosphate facilitated the release of CQ from the nanobomb and deep penetration of PDGL-GEM. The internalization of PDGL-GEM and subsequent intracellular release of GEM inhibited tumor growth, while CQ downregulated autophagy in tumor cells and fibroblasts. In fact, inhibition of xenograft and orthotopic tumor growth was greater with the complete PDGL-GEM@CAP/CQ than with subassemblies lacking GEM or CQ. More importantly, mechanistic studies in vitro and in vivo suggested that the nanobomb inhibits metastasis by downregulating MMP-2 and paxillin, as well as reducing fibrosis.

Conclusion: The pH-sensitive PDGL-GEM@CAP/CQ shows potential for inhibiting proliferation and metastasis of pancreatic cancer through an autophagy-dependent pathway.

Keywords: autophagy inhibition, pancreatic cancer, size-shrinkage, tumor metastasis, deep penetration