Targeted liposomal drug formulations may enter cells by receptor-mediated endocytosis and then traffick by membrane flow into acidic intracellular compartments. In order to understand the impact of these intracellular pH changes on liposomal drug unloading, the effect of pH on the release from folate-targeted liposomes of three model compounds with distinct pH dependencies was examined. 5(6)-carboxyfluorescein, which titrates from its anionic to uncharged form following internalization by KB cells, displays strong endocytosis-dependent release, since only its uncharged (endosomal) form is membrane permeable. Endocytosis-triggered unloading of drugs of this sort is enhanced by encapsulating the drug in a weak buffer at neutral pH, so that acidification of the intraliposomal compartment following cellular uptake can occur rapidly. Sulforhodamine B, in contrast, retains both anionic and cationic charges at endosomal pH (∼pH 5), and consequently, escapes the endosomes only very slowly. Doxorubicin, which is commonly loaded into liposomes in its membrane-impermeable (cationic) form using an acidic buffer, still displays endocytosis-triggered unloading, since sufficient uncharged doxorubicin remains at endosomal pHs to allow rapid re-equilibration of the drug according to the new proton gradient across the membrane. In this case, when the extraliposomal [H+] increases 250-fold from 4 × 10−8 M (pH 7.4, outside the cell) to 10−5 M (pH 5, inside the endosome), the ratio of doxorubicin inside to outside the liposome must decrease by a factor of 250. Therefore, the collapse of the transliposomal pH gradient indirectly drives an efflux of the drug molecule from the liposome. Since a change in intraliposomal pH is not required to unload drugs of this type, the intraliposomal compartment can be buffered strongly at acidic pH to prevent premature release of the drug outside the cell. In summary, pH triggered release of liposome-encapsulated drugs can be achieved both with drugs that increase as well as decrease their membrane permeabilities upon acidification, as long as the intraliposomal buffer strength and pH is rationally selected.

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