The proliferation epidermal growth factor (EGF) is known to acquire contradictory apoptotic activities upon conjugation with gold nanoparticles (GNPs) through hitherto unknown mechanisms. Here, we identified an essential role of membrane rafts in the drastic activity switching of EGF-GNPs through the following intracellular signaling. (1) In contrast to the rapid diffusion of activated EGF receptor after the soluble EGF stimulation, the receptor is confined within membrane rafts upon binding to the EGF-GNPs. (2) This initial receptor confinements switch its endocytosis process from normal clathrin-mediated endocytosis to caveolin-mediated one, changing the phosphorylation dynamics of essential downstream kinases, i.e., extracellular signal-regulated kinase and AKT. Importantly, the destruction of membrane rafts by β-cyclodextrin reversed this trafficking and signaling, restoring EGF-GNPs to lost anti-apoptotic property. These results reveal the importance of GNP-mediated signal condensation at membrane rafts in conferring the unique apoptotic activity on EGF-nanoparticle conjugates. Statement of significance: Epidermal growth factor (EGF) is a small secretory protein that induces cell proliferation upon binding to its receptor existed on cellular plasma membranes. One interesting feature of the protein in the nanobiology field is, its acquisition of apoptosis-inducing (cellular suicide) activity rather than proliferative one upon conjugation to gold nanoparticles through hitherto unknown mechanisms. Here, we identified the involvement of membrane rafts, plasma membrane nanodomains enriched with cholesterol, in the apoptosis processes by changing the receptor trafficking and downstream signal transduction pathways. Moreover, the destruction of lipid rafts restored the EGF-nanoparticle conjugates with lost anti-apoptotic activity. These finding highlight potential applications of EGF-nanoparticle conjugates to cancer therapy, as the EGF receptor are highly expressed in cancer cells.
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