Why carbon nanotubes cause cell death

Scientists have finally understood why carbon nanotubes spell trouble for cells, which may lead to better ways of determining their toxicity to humans.

A group of researchers at Brown University have found that certain nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, enter cells tip-first and almost always at a 90-degree angle.

The orientation ends up fooling the cell; by taking in the rounded tip first, the cell mistakes the particle for a sphere, rather than a long cylinder.

Within minutes, the cell senses it can”t fully engulf the nanostructure and essentially dials 911, the report said.

“At this stage, it”s too late,” said Huajian Gao, professor of engineering at Brown and the paper”s corresponding author.

“It”s in trouble and calls for help, triggering an immune response that can cause repeated inflammation.”

“It”s as if we would eat a lollipop that”s longer than us, it would get stuck,” he added.

The research is important because nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes have promise in medicine, such as acting as vehicles to transport drugs to specific cells or to specific locations in the human body.

If scientists can fully understand how nanomaterials interact with cells, then they can conceivably design products that help cells rather than harm them.

The study has been published in Nature Nanotechnology.

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