Dendrimers, spherical or quasi-spherical synthetic polymers in the nano-size range, have found useful applications as prospective carriers in drug and gene delivery. The investigation of dendrimer uptake by cells has been previously achieved by the incorporation of a fluorescent dye to the dendrimer either by chemical conjugation or by physical interaction. Here we describe the synthesis of two intrinsically fluorescent lysine based cationic dendrimers which lack a fluorophore, but which has sufficient fluorescence intensity to be detected at low concentrations. The nomenclature used to describe our compounds results in, for example the 6th generation dendrimer being notated as Gly-Lys(63) (NH2)(64); Gly denotes that the compound has a glycine in the core coupled to 63 lysine branching units (Lys(63)) and that the surface has 64 free amino groups (NH2)(64). The use of these dendrimers in probing transport avoids the need for fluorescent tagging with its attendant problems. The uptake of Gly-Lys(63) (NH2)(64) into Caco-2 cells was followed using confocal microscopy. Being cationic, it first adsorbs to the cell surface, enters the cytoplasm and reaches the nucleus within 35-45 min. Estimates of the diffusion coefficient of the dendrimer within the cell cytoplasm leads to a value of 6.27 ( +/- 0.49) x 10(-11) cm(2) s(-1), which is up to 1000 times lower than the diffusion coefficient of the dendrimer in water. Intrinsically fluorescent dendrimers of different size and charge are useful probes of transport in cells.
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