Impact of mucus modulation b N-acetylcysteine on nanoparticle toxicity

Human respiratory mucus is a biological hydrogel that forms a protective barrier for the underlying epithelium. Modulation of the mucus layer has been employed as a strategy to enhance transmucosal drug carrier transport. However, a drawback of this strategy is a potential reduction of the mucus barrier properties, in particular in situations with an increased exposure to particles. In this study, we investigated the impact of mucus modulation on its protective role. In vitro mucus was produced by Calu-3 cells, cultivated at the air-liquid interface for 21 days and used for further testing as formed on top of the cells. Analysis of confocal 3D imaging data revealed that after 21 days Calu-3 cells secrete a mucus layer with a thickness of 24 ± 6μm. Mucus appeared to restrict penetration of 500 nm carboxyl-modified polystyrene particles to the upper 5–10μm of the layer. Furthermore, a mucus modulation protocol using aerosolized N-acetylcysteine (NAC) was developed. This treatment enhanced the penetration of particles through the mucus down to deeper layers by means of the mucolytic action of NAC. These findings were supported by cytotoxicity data, indicating that intact mucus protects the underlying epithelium from particle-induced effects on membrane integrity. The impact of NAC treatment on the protective properties of mucus was probed by using 50 and 100 nm amine-modified and 50 nm carboxyl-modified polystyrene nanoparticles, respectively. Cytotoxicity was only induced by the amine-modified particles in combination with NAC treatment, implying a reduced protective function of modulated mucus. Overall, our data emphasize the importance of integrating an assessment of the protective function of mucus into the development of therapy approaches involving mucus modulation.