Lysosomes are acidic organelles essential for degradation, signalling and cell homoeostasis. In addition, they play a key role in cell death. Permeabilization of the lysosomal membrane and release of hydrolytic enzymes to the cytosol accompanies apoptosis signalling in several systems. The regulatory mechanism of lysosomal stability is, however, poorly understood. Lipophilic or amphiphilic compounds with a basic moiety will become protonated and trapped within lysosomes, and such lysosomotropic behaviour is also found in many pharmacological drugs. The natural sphingolipid sphingosine exhibits lysosomotropic detergent ability and is an endogenous candidate for controlling lysosomal membrane permeabilization. The lysosomotropic properties of certain detergents might be of use in lysosome-targeting anticancer drugs and drug delivery system in the future. The present review summarizes the current knowledge on the targeting and permeabilizing properties of lysosomotropic detergents from a cellular and physicochemical perspective.

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