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The pH-selective insertion and folding of a membrane peptide, pHLIP [pH (low) insertion peptide], can be used to target acidic tissue in vivo, including acidic foci in tumors, kidneys, and inflammatory sites. In a mouse breast adenocarcinoma model, fluorescently labeled pHLIP finds solid acidic tumors with high accuracy and accumulates in them even at a very early stage of tumor development. The fluorescence signal is stable for >4 days and is approximately five times higher in tumors than in healthy counterpart tissue. In a rat antigen-induced arthritis model, pHLIP preferentially accumulates in inflammatory foci. pHLIP also maps the renal cortical interstitium; however, kidney accumulation can be reduced significantly by providing mice with bicarbonate-containing drinking water. The peptide has three states: soluble in water, bound to the surface of a membrane, and inserted across the membrane as an α-helix. At physiological pH, the equilibrium is toward water, which explains its low affinity for cells in healthy tissue; at acidic pH, titration of Asp residues shifts the equilibrium toward membrane insertion and tissue accumulation. The replacement of two key Asp residues located in the transmembrane part of pHLIP by Lys or Asn led to the loss of pH-sensitive insertion into membranes of liposomes, red blood cells, and cancer cells in vivo, as well as to the loss of specific accumulation in tumors. pHLIP nanotechnology introduces a new method of detecting, targeting, and possibly treating acidic diseased tissue by using the selective insertion and folding of membrane peptides.

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Freely available online through the PNAS open access option. © 2007 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA