Mesoporous silica nanoparticles (MSNs) hold great potential as a versatile platform for biomedical applications, especially drug delivery. However, evidence shows that MSNs even when PEGylated are rapidly cleared from the bloodstream by the monocyte phagocytic system. Erythrocytes, also called red blood cells (RBCs), can serve as biocompatible carriers of various bioactive substances, including drugs, enzymes, and peptides. In this work, we synthesize a series of fluorescent PEGylated MSNs with different synthetic diameters ranging from 10 to 200 nm and investigate the size effect on their encapsulation in human RBCs (hRBCs) by a hypotonic dialysis-based method. According to fluorescence images and flow cytometry analyses, we demonstrated that a hydrodynamic diameter below 30 nm is critical for efficient MSN encapsulation. Confocal microscopy and scanning electron microscopy images further confirmed that PEGylated MSNs were successfully embedded inside RBC. PEGylation serves an important role not only for stabilizing MSNs in biological milieu but also for reducing significant hemolysis caused by bare MSNs and thus for successful encapsulation. In addition to PEGylation, we further introduce positively charged functional groups onto the MSNs to show that nanoparticle-encapsulated hRBCs could serve as depots for delivering biological molecules through electrostatic attraction or chemical conjugation with MSNs. Also, we verify the existence of CD47 membrane protein, a marker of self, on the nanoparticle-encapsulated hRBCs and assess its ability of circulation in the blood, which could act as a circulation reservoir for delivering pharmacological substances through an osmosis-based method with MSNs.
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