Injectable drug nanocarriers have greatly benefited in their clinical development from the addition of a superficial hydrophilic corona to improve their cargo pharmacokinetics. The most studied and used polymer for this purpose is poly(ethylene glycol), PEG. However, in spite of its wide use for over two decades now, there is no general consensus on the optimum PEG chain coverage-density and size required to escape from the mononuclear phagocyte system and to extend the circulation time. Moreover, cellular uptake and active targeting may have conflicting requirements in terms of surface properties of the nanocarriers which complicate even more the optimization process. These persistent issues can be largely attributed to the lack of straightforward characterization techniques to assess the coverage-density, the conformation or the thickness of a PEG layer grafted or adsorbed on a particulate drug carrier and is certainly one of the main reasons why so few clinical applications involving PEG coated particle-based drug delivery systems are under clinical trial so far.
The objective of this review is to provide the reader with a brief description of the most relevant techniques used to assess qualitatively or quantitatively PEG chain coverage-density, conformation and layer thickness on polymeric nanoparticles. Emphasis has been made on polymeric particle (solid core) either made of copolymers containing PEG chains or modified after particle formation. Advantages and limitations of each technique are presented as well as methods to calculate PEG coverage-density and to investigate PEG chains conformation on the NP surface.