The endogenous transport mechanisms which occur in living organisms have evolved to allow selective transport and processing operate on a scale of tens of nanometers. This presents the possibility of unprecedented access for engineered nanoscale materials to organs and sub-cellular locations, materials which may in principle be targeted to precise locations for diagnostic or therapeutic gain. For this reason, nano-architectures could represent a truly radical departure as delivery agents for drugs, genes and therapies to treat a host of diseases. Thus, for active targeting, unlike the case of small molecular drugs where molecular structure has evolved to promote higher physiochemical affinity to specific sites, one aims to exploit these energy dependant endogenous processes. Many active targeting strategies have been developed, but despite this truly remarkable potential, in applications they have met with mixed success to date. This situation may have more to do with our current understanding and integration of knowledge across disciplines, than any intrinsic limitation on the vision itself.

In this review article we suggest that much more fundamental and detailed control of the nanoparticle–biomolecule interface is required for sustained and general success in this field. In the simplest manifestation, pristine nanoparticles in biological fluids act as a scaffold for biomolecules, which adsorb rapidly to the nanoparticles' surface, conferring a new biological identity to the nanoparticles. It is this nanoparticle–biomolecule interface that is ‘read’ and acted upon by the cellular machinery. Moreover, where targeting moieties are grafted onto nanoparticles, they may not retain their function as a result of poor orientation, and structural or conformational disruption. Further surface adsorption of biomolecules from the surrounding environment i.e. the formation of a biomolecule corona may also obscure specific surface recognition. To transfer the remarkable possibilities of nanoscale interactions in biology into therapeutics one may need a more focused and dedicated approach to the understanding of the in situ (in vivo) interface between engineered nanomaedicines and their targets.

This paper was originally published in Journal of Controlled Release (2012) 161, 164–174.

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