Graphene and graphene derivative nanoplatelets represent a new generation of nanomaterials with unique physico-chemical properties and high potential for use in composite materials and biomedical devices. To date little is known about the impact graphene nanomaterials may have on human health in the case of accidental or intentional exposure. The objective of this study was to assess the cytotoxic potential of graphene nanoplatelets with different surface chemistry towards a human hepatoma cell line, Hep G2, and identify the underlying toxicity targets.
Graphene oxide (GO) and carboxyl graphene (CXYG) nanoplatelet suspensions were obtained in water and culture medium. Size frequency distribution of the suspensions was determined by means of dynamic light scattering. Height, lateral dimension and shape of the nanoplatelets were determined using atomic force and electron microscopy. Cytotoxicity of GO and CXYG nanoplatelets was assessed in Hep G2 cells using a battery of assays covering different modes of action including alterations of metabolic activity, plasma membrane integrity and lysosomal function. Induction of oxidative stress was assessed by measuring intracellular reactive oxygen species levels. Interaction with the plasma membrane, internalization and intracellular fate of GO and CXYG nanoplatelets was studied by scanning and transmission electron microscopy.
Supplementing culture medium with serum was essential to obtain stable GO and CXYG suspensions. Both graphene derivatives had high affinity for the plasma membrane and caused structural damage of the latter at concentrations as low as 4 μg/ml. The nanoplatelets penetrated through the membrane into the cytosol, where they were concentrated and enclosed in vesicles. GO and CXYG accumulation in the cytosol was accompanied by an increase in intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels, alterations in cellular ultrastructure and changes in metabolic activity.
GO and CXYG nanoplatelets caused dose- and time-dependent cytotoxicity in Hep G2 cells with plasma membrane damage and induction of oxidative stress being important modes of toxicity. Both graphene derivatives were internalized by Hep G2, a non-phagocytotic cell line. Moreover, they exerted no toxicity when applied at very low concentrations (< 4 μg/ml). GO and CXYG nanoplatelets may therefore represent an attractive material for biomedical applications.