Engineering live cell surfaces with functional polymers via cytocompatible controlled radical polymerization

Niu, J., Lunn, D. J., Pusuluri, A., Yoo, J. I., O'Malley, M. A., Mitragotri, S., Soh, H. T., Hawker, C. J.
Nature Chemistry
9, 537–545

The capability to graft synthetic polymers onto the surfaces of live cells offers the potential to manipulate and control their phenotype and underlying cellular processes. Conventional grafting-to strategies for conjugating preformed polymers to cell surfaces are limited by low polymer grafting efficiency. Here we report an alternative grafting-from strategy for directly engineering the surfaces of live yeast and mammalian cells through cell surface-initiated controlled radical polymerization. By developing cytocompatible PET-RAFT (photoinduced electron transfer-reversible addition-fragmentation chain-transfer polymerization), synthetic polymers with narrow polydispersity (Mw/Mn < 1.3) could be obtained at room temperature in 5 minutes. This polymerization strategy enables chain growth to be initiated directly from chain-transfer agents anchored on the surface of live cells using either covalent attachment or non-covalent insertion, while maintaining high cell viability. Compared with conventional grafting-to approaches, these methods significantly improve the efficiency of grafting polymer chains and enable the active manipulation of cellular phenotypes.