This study provides a significant contribution to the development of multiple hydrogen-bonded supramolecular nanocarrier systems by demonstrating that controlling the hydrogen bond strength within supramolecular polymers represents a crucial factor to tailor the drug delivery performance and enhance the effectiveness of cancer therapy. Herein, we successfully developed two kinds of poly(ethylene glycol)-based telechelic polymers Cy-PEG and UrCy-PEG having self-constituted double and quadruple hydrogen-bonding cytosine (Cy) and ureido-cytosine (UrCy) end-capped groups, respectively, which directly assemble into spherical nanogels with a number of interesting physical characteristics in aqueous solutions. The UrCy-PEG nanogels containing quadruple hydrogen-bonded UrCy dimers exhibited excellent long-term structural stability in a serum-containing biological medium, whereas the double hydrogen-bonded Cy moieties could not maintain the structural integrity of the Cy-PEG nanogels. More importantly, after the drug encapsulation process, a series of in vitro experiments clearly confirmed that drug-loaded UrCy-PEG nanogels induced selective apoptotic cell death in cancer cells without causing significant cytotoxicity to healthy cells, while drug-loaded Cy-PEG nanogels exerted nonselective cytotoxicity toward both cancer and normal cells, indicating that increasing the strength of hydrogen bonds in nanogels plays a key role in enhancing the selective cellular uptake and cytotoxicity of drugs and the subsequent induction of apoptosis in cancer cells.
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