Aptamer–Gemcitabine Conjugates with Enzymatically Cleavable Linker for Targeted Delivery and Intracellular Drug Release in Cancer Cells

Jianjun Qi, Zihua Zeng, Zhenghu Chen, Cole Nipper, Xiaohui Liu, Quanyuan Wan, Jian Chen, Ching Hsuan Tung, Youli Zu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Gemcitabine is a chemotherapeutic used clinically to treat a variety of cancers. However, because it lacks tumor cell specificity, gemcitabine may cause off-target cytotoxicity and adversely impact patients. To impart cancer cell specificity to gemcitabine and improve its therapeutic efficacy, we synthesized a unique aptamer–drug conjugate that carries a high gemcitabine payload (three molecules) via a dendrimer structure and enzymatically cleavable linkers for controlled intracellular drug release. First, linker–gemcitabinedendrimer–linker–gemcitabine products were produced, which had significantly lower cytotoxicity than an equimolar amount of free drug. Biochemical analysis revealed that lysosomal cathepsin B protease rapidly cleaved the dendritic linkers and released the conjugated gemcitabine as a free drug. Subsequently, the dendrimer–linker–gemcitabine was coupled with a cell-specific aptamer to form aptamer–gemcitabine conjugates. Functional assays confirmed that, under aptamer guidance, aptamer–gemcitabine conjugates were selectively bound to and then internalized by triple-negative breast cancer cells. Cellular therapy studies indicated that the aptamer–gemcitabine conjugates potentiated cytotoxic activity to targeted cancer cells but did not affect off-target control cells. Our study demonstrates a novel approach to aptamer-mediated targeted drug delivery that combines a high drug payload and an enzymatically controlled drug release switch to achieve higher therapeutic efficacy and fewer off-target effects relative to free-drug chemotherapy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number558
Issue number5
StatePublished - Apr 30 2022


  • aptamer–drug conjugates
  • cell-specific chemotherapy
  • controlled intracellular drug release
  • enzymatically cleavable linker
  • high gemcitabine payload
  • targeted drug delivery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Pharmaceutical Science
  • Drug Discovery


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