The properties of nanoparticles (NPs) can change upon contact with serum components, occluding the NP surface by forming a biomolecular corona. It is believed that targeted NPs can lose their functionality due to this biological coating, thus losing specificity and selectivity toward target cells and leading to poor therapeutic efficiency. A better understanding of how the biomolecular corona affects NP ligand functionality is needed to maintain NP targeting capabilities. However, techniques that can quantify the functionality of NPs at a single-particle level in a complex medium are limited and often laborious in sample preparation, measurement, and analysis. In this work, the influence of serum exposure on the functionality of antibody-functionalized NPs was quantified using a straightforward total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy method and evaluated in cell uptake studies. The single-particle resolution of TIRF reveals the interparticle functionality heterogeneity and the substantial differences between NPs conjugated with covalent and noncovalent methods. Notably, only NPs covalently conjugated with a relatively high amount of antibodies maintain their functionality to a certain extent and still showed cell specificity and selectivity toward high receptor density cells after incubation in full serum. The presented study emphasizes the importance of single-particle functional characterization of NPs in complex media, contributing to the understanding and design of targeted NPs that retain their cell specificity and selectivity in biologically relevant conditions.
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© 2023 The Authors. Published by American Chemical Society.