We have studied the complement-activating properties of liposomes. We show that surface charge is a key determinant of complement-activating liposomes. The nature of the charge, whether negative or positive, appears to dictate which pathway of the complement system is activated. Phosphatidylcholine:cholesterol (PC:CHOL, 55:45 mol/mol) liposomes were made to exhibit a positive or negative surface charge by the addition of cationic or anionic lipids, respectively. Normal human or guinea pig serum was incubated with liposomes, followed by determining the residual hemolytic activity of the serum as a measure of complement activation. Negatively charged liposomes containing phosphatidyl-glycerol, phosphatidic acid, cardiolipin, phosphatidylinositol, or phosphatidylserine activated complement in a Ca(2+)-dependent manner suggesting activation occurred via the classical pathway. Positively charged liposomes containing stearylamine or 1,2-bis(oleoyloxy)-3-(trimethylammonio)propane activated complement via the alternative pathway. Neutral liposomes, PC:CHOL (55:45) and PC:CHOL:dipalmitoylphosphatidylethanolamine (35:45:20), failed to activate complement as measured by the hemolytic assays. We show that unsaturated liposomes are more potent complement activators than saturated liposomes and that 45 mol% cholesterol promotes complement protein-liposome interactions. Immunoblot analysis of phosphatidylglycerol-containing liposomes showed that C3b and C9 were associated with these liposomes. Thus, the complement consumption measured in the hemolytic assays represents active cleavage of the complement components and not passive adsorption to the liposome surface. These studies suggest that membranes composed of net charged phospholipids can activate the complement system. This observation underlines the importance in biologic membranes of complement regulatory proteins that protect normal cells from complement attack.

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