A highly tunable quantum dot (QD)–polypeptide hybrid assembly system with potential uses for both molecular imaging and delivery of biomolecular cargo to cancer cells is reported. The tunability of the assembly system, its application for imaging cancer cells, and its ability to carry a biomolecule are demonstrated. The assemblies are formed through the self-assembly of carboxyl-functionalized QDs and poly(diethylene glycol-L-lysine)-poly(L-lysine) (PEGLL-PLL) diblock copolypeptide molecules, and they are modified with peptide ligands containing a cyclic arginine-glycine-aspartate [c(RGD)] motif that has affinity for αvβ3 and αvβ5 integrins overexpressed on the tumor vasculature. To illustrate the tunability of the QD-polypeptide assembly system, it is shown that binding to U87MG glioblastoma cells can be modulated and optimized by changing either the conditions under which the assemblies are formed or the relative lengths of the PEGLL and PLL blocks in the PEGLL-PLL molecules. The optimized c(RGD)-modified assemblies bind integrin receptors on U87MG cells and are endocytosed, as demonstrated by flow cytometry and live-cell imaging. Binding specificity is confirmed by competition with an excess of free c(RGD) peptide. Finally, it is shown that the QD–polypeptide assemblies can be loaded with fluorescently labeled ovalbumin, as a proof-of-concept for their potential use in biomolecule delivery.
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