The fight against drug resistance in chemotherapy requires a molecular-level understanding of the drug interaction with cell membranes, which today is feasible with membrane models. In this study, we report on the interaction of gemcitabine (GEM), a pyrimidine nucleoside antimetabolite used to treat pancreatic cancer, with Langmuir films that mimic healthy and cancerous cell membranes. The cell membrane models were made with eight compositions of a quaternary mixture containing 1,2-dipalmitoyl-sn-glycerol-3-phosphocholine (DPPC), 1,2-dipalmitoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphoserine (DPPS), sphingomyelin (SM), and cholesterol (CHOL). The relative concentration of SM was increased so that four of these compositions represented cancerous cells. GEM was found to increase the mean molecular area, also increasing their surface elasticity, with stronger interactions being observed for membranes corresponding to cancerous cells. More specifically, GEM penetrated deepest in the membrane with the highest SM concentration (40 mol%), as inferred from polarization-modulated infrared reflection absorption spectroscopy (PM-IRRAS). This finding was confirmed with molecular dynamics simulations that also indicated how GEM approaches the membrane, which could be useful for guiding the design of drug delivery systems. The experimental and simulation results are consistent with the preferential attachment of GEM onto cancerous cells and highlight the role of SM on drug-cell interactions.
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