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A mechanistic dissection of polyethylenimine mediated transfection of CHO cells: To enhance the efficiency of recombinant DNA utilization



In this study, we examine the molecular and cellular interactions that underpin efficient internalization and utilization of polyethylenimine (PEI):DNA complexes (polyplexes) by Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells. Cell surface polyplex binding and internalization was a biphasic process, consisting of an initial rapid Phase (I), lasting approximately 15 min, followed by a slower second Phase (II), saturating at approximately 240 min post transfection. The second Phase accounted for the majority (60–70%) of polyplex internalization. While cell surface heparan sulphate proteoglycans (HSPGs) were rapidly cointernalized with polyplexes during Phase I, cell surface polyplex binding was not dependent on HSPGs. However, Phase II polyplex internalization and HSPG regeneration onto the surface of trypsinized cells occurred at similar rates, suggesting that the rate of recycling of HSPG-containing membrane to the plasma membrane limits Phase II internalization rate. Under optimal transfection conditions, polyplexes had a near neutral surface charge (zeta potential) and cell surface binding was dependent on hydrophobic interactions, being significantly inhibited by both chemical sequestration of cholesterol from the plasma membrane and addition of nonionic surfactant. Induced alterations in polyplex zeta potential, using ferric (III) citrate to decrease surface charge and varying PEI:DNA ratio to increase surface charge, served to inhibit polyplex binding or reduce secreted alkaline phosphatase reporter expression and cell viability, respectively. To increase polyplex hydrophobicity and internalization an alkylated derivative of PEI, propyl-PEI, was chemically synthesized. Using Design of Experiments–Response Surface Modeling to optimize the transfection process, the function of propyl-PEI was compared to that of unmodified PEI in both parental CHO-S cells and a subclone (Clone 4), which exhibited superior transgene expression via an increased resistance to polyplex cytotoxicity. The combination of propyl-PEI and Clone 4 doubled the efficiency of recombinant DNA utilization and reporter protein production. These data show that for maximal efficacy, strategies to increase polyplex internalization into cells must be used in concert with strategies to offset the inherent cytotoxicity of this process. © 2014 American Institute of Chemical Engineers Biotechnol. Prog., 30:1161–1170, 2014