Protein cages and synthetic polymers: a fruitful symbiosis for drug delivery applications, bionanotechnology and materials science

Martin Rother, Martin G. Nussbaumer, Kasper Renggli, Nico Bruns

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

122 Citations (Scopus)


Protein cages are hollow protein nanoparticles, such as viral capsids, virus-like particles, ferritin, heat-shock proteins and chaperonins. They have well-defined capsule-like structures with a monodisperse size. Their protein subunits can be modified by genetic engineering at predetermined positions, allowing for example site-selective introduction of attachment points for functional groups, catalysts or targeting ligands on their outer surface, in their interior and between subunits. Therefore, protein cages have been extensively explored as functional entities in bionanotechnology, as drug-delivery or gene-delivery vehicles, as nanoreactors or as templates for the synthesis of organic and inorganic nanomaterials. The scope of functionalities and applications of protein cages can be significantly broadened if they are combined with synthetic polymers on their surface or within their interior. For example, PEGylation reduces the immunogenicity of protein cage-based delivery systems and active targeting ligands can be attached via polymer chains to favour their accumulation in diseased tissue. Polymers within protein cages offer the possibility of increasing the loading density of drug molecules, nucleic acids, magnetic resonance imaging contrast agents or catalysts. Moreover, the interaction of protein cages and polymers can be used to modulate the size and shape of some viral capsids to generate structures that do not occur with native viruses. Another possibility is to use the interior of polymer cages as a confined reaction space for polymerization reactions such as atom transfer radical polymerization or rhodium-catalysed polymerization of phenylacetylene. The protein nanoreactors facilitate a higher degree of control over polymer synthesis. This review will summarize the hybrid structures that have been synthesized by polymerizing from protein cage-bound initiators, by conjugating polymers to protein cages, by embedding protein cages into bulk polymeric materials, by forming two- and three-dimensional crystals of protein cages and dendrimers, by adsorbing proteins to the surface of materials, by layer-by-layer deposition of proteins and polyelectrolytes and by encapsulating polymers into protein cages. The application of these hybrid materials in the biomedical context or as tools and building blocks for bionanotechnology, biosensing, memory devices and the synthesis of materials will be highlighted. The review aims to showcase recent developments in this field and to suggest possible future directions and opportunities for the symbiosis of protein cages and polymers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6213-6249
Number of pages37
JournalChemical Society Reviews
Issue number22
Early online date18 Jul 2016
Publication statusPublished - 21 Nov 2016


  • protein cages
  • nanoparticles
  • synthetic polymers


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