Background: Exon skipping oligonucleotides (ESOs) of 2′O-Methyl (2′OMe) and morpholino chemistry have been shown to restore dystrophin expression in muscle fibers from the mdx mouse, and are currently being tested in phase I clinical trials for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). However, ESOs remain limited in their effectiveness because of an inadequate delivery profile. Synthetic cationic copolymers of poly(ethylene imine) (PEI) and poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) are regarded as effective agents for enhanced delivery of nucleic acids in various applications. Results: We examined whether PEG-PEI copolymers can facilitate ESO-mediated dystrophin expression after intramuscular injections into tibialis anterior (TA) muscles of mdx mice. We utilized a set of PEG-PEI copolymers containing 2 kDa PEI and either 550 Da or 5 kDa PEG, both of which bind 2′OMe ESOs with high affinity and form stable nanoparticulates with a relatively low surface charge. Three weekly intramuscular injections of 5 μg of ESO complexed with PEI2K-PEG550 copolymers resulted in about 500 dystrophin-positive fibers and about 12% of normal levels of dystrophin expression at 3 weeks after the initial injection, which is significantly greater than for injections of ESO alone, which are known to be almost completely ineffective. In an effort to enhance biocompatibility and cellular uptake, the PEI2K-PEG550 and PEI2K-PEG5K copolymers were functionalized by covalent conjugation with nanogold (NG) or adsorbtion of colloidal gold (CG), respectively. Surprisingly, using the same injection and dosing regimen, we found no significant difference in dystrophin expression by Western blot between the NG-PEI2K-PEG550, CG-PEI2K-PEG5K, and non-functionalized PEI2K-PEG550 copolymers. Dose-response experiments using the CG-PEI2K-PEG5K copolymer with total ESO ranging from 3-60 μg yielded a maximum of about 15% dystrophin expression. Further improvements in dystrophin expression up to 20% of normal levels were found at 6 weeks after 10 twice-weekly injections of the NG-PEI2K-PEG550 copolymer complexed with 5 μg of ESO per injection. This injection and dosing regimen showed over 1000 dystrophin-positive fibers. H&E staining of all treated muscle groups revealed no overt signs of cytotoxicity. Conclusion: We conclude that PEGylated PEI2K copolymers are efficient carriers for local delivery of 2′OMe ESOs and warrant further development as potential therapeutics for treatment of DMD.
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