PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] It's been long known that asbestos spells trouble for human cells. Scientists have seen cells stabbed with spiky, long asbestos fibers, and the image is gory: Part of the fiber is protruding from the cell, like a quivering arrow that's found its mark.
But scientists had been unable to understand why cells would be interested in asbestos fibers and other materials at the nanoscale that are too long to be fully ingested. Now a group of researchers at Brown University explains what happens. Through molecular simulations and experiments, the team reports in Nature Nanotechnology 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. By the time the cell realizes the material is too long to be fully ingested, it's too late.
"It's as if we would eat a lollipop that's longer than us," said Huajian Gao, professor of engineering at Brown and the paper's corresponding author. "It would get stuck."
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.
"If we can fully understand (nanomaterial-cell dynamics), we can make other tubes that can control how cells interact with nanomaterials and not be toxic," Gao said. "We ultimately want to stop the attraction between the nanotip and the cell."
Like asbestos fibers, commercially available carbon nanotubes and gold nanowires have rounded tips that often range from 10 to 100 nanometers in diameter. Size is important here; the diamet
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