Document Type


Date of Original Version





Here we review a novel class of delivery vehicles based on pH-sensitive, moderately polar membrane peptides, which we call pH (Low) Insertion Peptides (pHLIPs), that target cells located in the acidic environment found in many diseased tissues, including tumours. Acidity targeting by pHLIPs is achieved as a result of helix formation and transmembrane insertion. In contrast to the earlier technologies based on cell-penetrating peptides, pHLIPs act as monomeric membrane-inserting peptides that translocate one terminus across a membrane into the cytoplasm, while the other terminus remains in the extracellular space, locating the peptide in the membrane lipid bilayer. Therefore pHLIP has a dual delivery capability: it can tether cargo molecules or nanoparticles to the surfaces of cells in diseased tissues and/or it can move a cell-impermeable cargo molecule across the membrane into the cytoplasm. The source of energy for moving polar molecules attached to pHLIP through the hydrophobic layer of a membrane bilayer is the membrane-associated folding of the polypeptide. A drop in pH leads to the protonation of negatively charged residues (Asp or Glu), which enhances peptide hydrophobicity, increasing the affinity of the peptide for the lipid bilayer and triggering peptide folding and subsequent membrane insertion. The process is accompanied by the release of energy that can be utilized to move cell-impermeable cargo across a membrane. That the mechanism is now understood, and that targeting of tumours in mice has been shown, suggest a number of future applications of the pHLIP technology in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.