Revisiting structure-property relationship of pH-responsive polymers for drug delivery applications

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pH-responsive polymers contain ionic functional groups as pendants in their structure. The total number of charged groups on polymer chains determines the overall response of the system to changes in the external pH. This article reviews various pH-responsive polymers classified as polyacids (e.g., carboxylic acid based polymers, sulfonamides, anionic polysaccharides, and anionic polypeptides) and polybases (e.g., polyamines, pyridine and imidazole containing polymers, cationic polysaccharides, and cationic polypeptides). We correlate the pH variations in the body at the organ level (e.g., gastrointestinal tract and vaginal environment), tissue level (e.g., cancerous and inflamed tissues), and cellular level (e.g., sub-cellular organelles), with the intrinsic properties of pH-responsive polymers. This knowledge could help to select more effective (‘smart’) polymeric systems based on the biological target. Considering the pH differences in the body, various drug delivery systems can be designed by utilizing smart biopolymeric compounds with the required pH-sensitivity. We also review the pharmaceutical application of pH-responsive polymeric carriers including hydrogels, polymer-drug conjugates, micelles, dendrimers, and polymersomes.

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