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Abstract

The great achievement of nanotechnology is the controlled synthesis of a large variety of nanometer-size materials like needle-formed nanotubes, nanowires and two-dimensional graphene flakes. Due to their unique physico-chemical properties, these nanostructures are considered to be of great benefit for many applications in engineering, electronics, alternative energies and nanomedicine. Since the expectations for the improvement of our everyday life through engineered nanomaterials are high, there is rapid expansion of their manufacturing, which makes it likely that intentional and unintentional human and environmental exposure will increase in the near future. Consequently, the concern grows, related to their possible health hazards, as some of them strongly resemble asbestos. Motivated by this issue, we have investigated the in vitro acute cellular toxicity associated with four model nanomaterials: carbon nanotubes, boron nitride nanotubes, titanium dioxide nanofilaments and graphene oxide. This study focused on the toxic effect these nanomaterials had on cell types found in the respiratory system, where exposure to these materials is most prominent. These are lung epithelial cells, macrophages, and fibroblasts, but also other cell types like kidney cells were tested. The cytotoxicity was assessed by using MTT, DNA and FMCA assays, which measure different endpoints such as metabolic activity, cell proliferation and viable cell number. The cell death was determined by the Annexin V assay. We employed various microscopic techniques: light microscopy to reveal the morphological alterations associated with the nanomaterial toxicity at the cellular level; scanning electron microscopy to study the cell-nanomaterial interactions on the surface of the cell membrane; transmission electron microscopy to examine the uptake and subsequent localization of the nanomaterials within the cytosol and cell organelles. In addition, the generation of intracellular reactive oxygen species induced by graphene oxide was detected by the DCF assay. Last but not least, the pro-inflammatory potential and the biochemical perturbations in cells exposed to boron nitride nanotubes were investigated by Western blot and Synchrotron Infrared Microspectroscopy (SIRMS), respectively. All these techniques point to the adverse effects of the investigated nanostructures: i) The toxic effect of carbon nanotubes and carbon nanoparticles showed a time- and dose-dependent impairment in the metabolic activity of the cells characteristic for each cell type. Moreover, distinct morphological alterations typical for cell death were particularly apparent in macrophages. ii) The toxic potential of boron nitride nanotubes exhibited more pronounced adverse effects than carbon nanotubes. This was demonstrated by cell viability assays combined with cytopathological and biochemical analyses, showing induction of serious morphological changes, particularly in macrophages and fibroblasts, and biochemical processes characteristic for cell death. A higher acute toxicity was determined for boron nitride nanotubes when compared to crocidolite asbestos and their pro-inflammatory potential was demonstrated by the secretion of mature IL-1β cytokine in macrophages. iii) Titanium dioxide nanofilaments were also shown to impair the metabolic activity of the studied cells and induce morphological changes pointing to cell insult. iv) Graphene oxide exhibited a mild cytotoxic action in comparison to carbon nanotubes on epithelial cells and macrophages. The interaction of the nanomaterial with the cell surface generated reactive oxygen species during the initial phase of the exposure and transmission electron microscopy showed that graphene oxide flakes are taken up via the endocytic pathway. In summary, our findings highlight important physico-chemical parameters, which are important in relation to the toxic effect of nanomaterials. These are: i) the chemical composition; ii) the surface modification including functionalized groups and structural defects; iii) the geometry: length, diameter and tortuosity. In addition to the identified nanomaterial characteristics, we pinpoint that the target cells ́ response depends on their type, which is likely to be linked to their physiological function.

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