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Low pH in the tumor micromilieu is a recognized pathological feature of cancer. This attribute of cancerous cells has been targeted herein for the controlled release of chemotherapeutics at the tumour site, while sparing healthy tissues. To this end, pH-sensitive, hollow ZnO-nanocarriers loaded with paclitaxel were synthesized and their efficacy studied in breast cancer in vitro and in vivo. The nanocarriers were surface functionalized with folate using click-chemistry to improve targeted uptake by the malignant cells that over-express folate-receptors. The nanocarriers released ~75% of the paclitaxel payload within six hours in acidic pH, which was accompanied by switching of fluorescence from blue to green and a 10-fold increase in the fluorescence intensity. The fluorescence-switching phenomenon is due to structural collapse of the nanocarriers in the endolysosome. Energy dispersion X-ray mapping and whole animal fluorescent imaging studies were carried out to show that combined pH and folate-receptor targeting reduces off-target accumulation of the nanocarriers. Further, a dual cell-specific and pH-sensitive nanocarrier greatly improved the efficacy of paclitaxel to regress subcutaneous tumors in vivo. These nanocarriers could improve chemotherapy tolerance and increase anti-tumor efficacy, while also providing a novel diagnostic read-out through fluorescent switching that is proportional to drug release in malignant tissues.
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