Nanotechnology is regarded as the enabling technology of the 21st century. However, only a relatively small number of nano-enabled medical and healthcare products finally made their way to the market. There are several reasons why such innovative approaches fail in translation, with one key factor being the uncertainty surrounding their safety assessment. Although well described, interference reactions of engineered nanomaterials (ENM) with classical cytotoxicity assays remain a major source of uncertainty.
Flow cytometry is a powerful, widely used, in vitro technique. Its readout is based on the detection of refracted laser light and fluorescence signals. It is therefore susceptible to ENM interference. Here we investigated possible interferences of ENM in the Annexin V/propidium iodide (PI) assay, which quantifies apoptotic and necrotic cell populations by flow cytometry.
Two case studies were conducted using either silica or gold nanoparticles differing in size, specific surface area and surface chemistry. Both ENM types were found to cause distinct interference reactions at realistic concentrations. Silica particles induced false-positive signals; however only in the absence of a protein corona and in conjunction with a particular fluorophore combination (FITC/PI). In contrast, gold particles led to complex quenching effects which were only marginally influenced by the presence of proteins and occurred for both fluorophore combinations analyzed. We present a versatile spike-in approach which is applicable to all ENM and cell types. It further allows for the identification of a broad range of different interference phenomena, thereby increasing the reliability and quality of flow cytometry and ENM hazard assessment.