Self-complementary zwitterionic peptides direct nanoparticle assembly and enable enzymatic selection of endocytic pathways

Richard H. Huang, Nazia Nayeem, Ye He, Jorges Morales, Duncan Graham, Rafal Klajn, Maria Contel, Stephen O'Brien, Rein V. Ulijn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)
12 Downloads (Pure)


Supramolecular self-assembly in biological systems holds promise to convert and amplify disease-specific signals to physical or mechanical signals that can direct cell fate. However, it remains challenging to design physiologically stable self-assembling systems that demonstrate tunable and predictable behavior. Here, the use of zwitterionic tetrapeptide modalities to direct nanoparticle assembly under physiological conditions is reported. The self-assembly of gold nanoparticles can be activated by enzymatic unveiling of surface-bound zwitterionic tetrapeptides through matrix metalloprotease-9 (MMP-9), which is overexpressed by cancer cells. This robust nanoparticle assembly is achieved by multivalent, self-complementary interactions of the zwitterionic tetrapeptides. In cancer cells that overexpress MMP-9, the nanoparticle assembly process occurs near the cell membrane and causes size-induced selection of cellular uptake mechanism, resulting in diminished cell growth. The enzyme responsiveness, and therefore, indirectly, the uptake route of the system can be programmed by customizing the peptide sequence: a simple inversion of the two amino acids at the cleavage site completely inactivates the enzyme responsiveness, self-assembly, and consequently changes the endocytic pathway. This robust self-complementary, zwitterionic peptide design demonstrates the use of enzyme-activated electrostatic side-chain patterns as powerful and customizable peptide modalities to program nanoparticle self-assembly and alter cellular response in biological context.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2104962
Number of pages12
JournalAdvanced Materials
Issue number1
Early online date20 Oct 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 Oct 2021


  • enzyme-responsive materials
  • MMP
  • zwitterionic nanoparticles
  • peptides
  • self assembly
  • cellular uptake
  • nanomedicine


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