Are quantum dots toxic? Exploring the discrepancy between cell culture and animal studies.
Despite significant interest in developing quantum dots (QDs) for biomedical applications, many researchers are convinced that QDs will never be used for treating patients because of their potential toxicity. The perception that QDs are toxic is rooted in two assumptions. Cadmium-containing QDs can kill cells in culture. Many researchers then assume that because QDs are toxic to cells, they must be toxic to humans. In addition, many researchers classify QDs as a homogeneous group of materials. Therefore, if CdSe QDs are harmful, they extrapolate this result to all QDs. Though unsubstantiated, these assumptions continue to drive QD research. When dosing is physiologically appropriate, QD toxicity has not been demonstrated in animal models. In addition, QDs are not uniform: each design is a unique combination of physicochemical properties that influence biological activity and toxicity. In this Account, we summarize key findings from in vitro and in vivo studies, explore the causes of the discrepancy in QD toxicological data, and provide our view of the future direction of the field. In vitro and in vivo QD studies have advanced our knowledge of cellular transport kinetics, mechanisms of QD toxicity, and biodistribution following animal injection. Cell culture experiments have shown that QDs undergo design-dependent intracellular localization and they can cause cytotoxicity by releasing free cadmium into solution and by generating free radical species. In animal experiments, QDs preferentially enter the liver and spleen following intravascular injection, undergo minimal excretion if larger than 6 nm, and appear to be safe to the animal. In vitro and in vivo studies show an apparent discrepancy with regard to toxicity. Dosing provides one explanation for these findings. Under culture conditions, a cell experiences a constant QD dose, but the in vivo QD concentration can vary, and the organ-specific dose may not be high enough to induce detectable toxicity. Because QDs are retained within animals, long-term toxicity may be a problem but has not been established. Future QD toxicity studies should be standardized and systematized because methodological variability in the current body of literature makes it difficult to compare and contrast results. We advocate the following steps for consistent, comparable toxicology data: (a) standardize dose metrics, (b) characterize QD uptake concentration, (c) identify in vitro models that reflect the cells QDs interact with in vivo, and (d) use multiple assays to determine sublethal toxicity and biocompatibility. Finally, we should ask more specific toxicological questions. For example: "At what dose are 5 nm CdSe QDs that are stabilized with mercaptoacetic acid and conjugated to the antibody herceptin toxic to HeLa cells?" rather than "Are QDs toxic?" QDs are still a long way from realizing their potential as a medical technology. Modifying the current QD toxicological research paradigm, investigating toxicity in a case-by-case manner, and improving study quality are important steps in identifying a QD formulation that is safe for human use.
Tsoi, KM; Dai, Q; Alman, BA; Chan, WCW
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