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Cell Mol Bioeng. 2017 Oct;10(5):387-403. doi: 10.1007/s12195-017-0489-4. Epub 2017 May 22.

Phase-Separated Liposomes Enhance the Efficiency of Macromolecular Delivery to the Cellular Cytoplasm.

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The University of Texas at Austin, Department of Biomedical Engineering.



From viruses to organelles, fusion of biological membranes is used by diverse biological systems to deliver macromolecules across membrane barriers. Membrane fusion is also a potentially efficient mechanism for the delivery of macromolecular therapeutics to the cellular cytoplasm. However, a key shortcoming of existing fusogenic liposomal systems is that they are inefficient, requiring a high concentration of fusion-promoting lipids in order to cross cellular membrane barriers.


Toward addressing this limitation, our experiments explore the extent to which membrane fusion can be amplified by using the process of lipid membrane phase separation to concentrate fusion-promoting lipids within distinct regions of the membrane surface.


We used confocal fluorescence microscopy to investigate the integration of fusion-promoting lipids into a ternary lipid membrane system that separated into liquid-ordered and liquid-disordered membrane phases. Additionally, we quantified the impact of membrane phase separation on the efficiency with which liposomes transferred lipids and encapsulated macromolecules to cells, using a combination of confocal fluorescence imaging and flow cytometry.


Here we report that concentrating fusion-promoting lipids within phase-separated lipid domains on the surfaces of liposomes significantly increases the efficiency of liposome fusion with model membranes and cells. In particular, membrane phase separation enhanced the delivery of lipids and model macromolecules to the cytoplasm of tumor cells by at least 4-fold in comparison to homogenous liposomes.


Our findings demonstrate that phase separation can enhance membrane fusion by locally concentrating fusion-promoting lipids on the surface of liposomes. This work represents the first application of lipid membrane phase separation in the design of biomaterials-based delivery systems. Additionally, these results lay the ground work for developing fusogenic liposomes that are triggered by physical and molecular cues associated with target cells.


Biomaterials; Biophysics; DOTAP; Fusion; Membrane; Transmembrane Delivery

Conflict of interest statement

CONFLICT OF INTEREST All authors, including Z. I. Imam, L. E Kenyon, G. Ashby, F. Nagib, M. Mendicino, C. Zhao, A. K. Gadok, and J. C. Stachowiak, declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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