Combined chemo-photothermal therapy of gold nanorods (GNRs) for cancer treatment shows better therapeutic efficiency than mono-chemotherapy, which has gained worldwide interests of scientists and clinician in both laboratory and clinic application. However, high cytotoxicity, declined delivery efficiency, and unsatisfactory therapy effect of the GNRs are still challenging in anti-cancer treatment. Herein, a series of pH-sensitively zwitterionic polypeptide conjugated GNRs were synthesized via a gold-thiol interaction for combination of chemo-photothermal therapy in cervical cancer treatment. The acid-labile hydrazone bond was utilized to incorporate the doxorubicin (DOX) for pH-sensitive drug release under tumoral environment. The as prepared GNRs conjugates demonstrated pH-triggered surface charge conversion from negative to positive when transporting from blood circulation to tumor extracellular environment, which can facilitate the cellular uptake via electrostatic interaction. After cellular internalization, the drug release was promoted by cleavage of the hydrazone in GNRs conjugates under cancer intracellular acid environment. As the effective near-infrared (NIR) photothermal materials, the as prepared GNRs conjugates can absorb NIR photo energy and convert it into heat under irradiation, which can efficiently kill the tumor cells. In cell assay, the GNRs conjugates displayed excellent biocompatibility against normal cell, enhanced cancer cell uptake, and remarkable cancer cell killing effects. In HeLa tumor-bearing mice, the GNRs conjugates demonstrated enhanced tumor inhibition efficacy by combination of chemo-photothermal therapy.
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