Exploring the drug loading mechanism of photoactive inorganic nanocarriers through molecular dynamics simulations

by S. Motta, P. Siani, A. Levy and C. Di Valentin
Nanoscale 2021, 13, pp 13000 View at Publisher
DOI: 10.1039/D1NR01972D


Inorganic nanoparticles are gaining increasing attention as drug carriers because they respond to external physical stimuli, allowing therapy to be combined with diagnosis. Their drawback is low drug loading capacity, which can be improved by proper and efficacious functionalization. In this computational study, we take TiO2 spherical nanoparticles as prototype photoresponsive inorganic nanoparticles and we fully decorate them with two different types of bifunctional ligands: TETTs and DOPACs, which present different surface anchoring groups (silanol or catechol) but the same drug tethering COOH group, although in different concentrations (3 vs. 1), thus causing different steric hindrances. Then, we put these two types of nanocarriers in bulk water and in the presence of several DOX molecules and let the systems evolve through molecular dynamics (MD) simulations, clearly observing drug loading on the nanocarriers. This comparative MD study allows the investigation of the loading mechanism, performance of a conformational analysis and establishment of the guiding interactions through an energy decomposition analysis. We learn that DOX mostly interacts with the functionalized NPs through electrostatics, as a consequence of the protonated amino group, although several H-bonds are also established both with the ligands and with the oxide surface. Different ligands induce a different electrostatic potential around the NP; therefore, those which lead to the formation of more negative hotspots (here TETTs) are found to favour DOX binding. The leading role of electrostatics can provide a rational explanation for a pH-dependent drug release mechanism that is often invoked for DOX when reaching diseased cells because under anomalous acidic conditions both the NP surface and the carboxylate groups of the ligands are expected to get protonated, which of course would weaken, if not totally quench, the interaction of the nanocarrier with protonated DOX.