Quantum dot cellular uptake and toxicity in the developing brain: implications for use as imaging probes†
Nanometer-sized luminescent semiconductor quantum dots (QDs) have been utilized as imaging and therapeutic agents in a variety of disease settings, including diseases of the central nervous system. QDs have several advantages over traditional fluorescent probes including their small size (5–10 nm), tunable excitation and emission spectra, tailorable surface functionality, efficient photoluminescence, and robust photostability, which are ideal characteristics for in vivo imaging. Although QDs are promising imaging agents in brain-related applications, no systematic evaluation of QD behavior in brain-relevant conditions has yet been done. Therefore, we sought to investigate QD colloidal stability, cellular uptake, and toxicity in vitro, ex vivo, and in vivo in the brain environment. We found that QD behavior is highly dependent on surface functionality and that treatment of cultured organotypic whole hemisphere (OWH) slices with QDs results in dose-dependent toxicity and metallothionein increase, but no subsequent mRNA expression level changes in inflammatory cytokines or other oxidative stress. QDs coated with poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG) were protected from aggregation in neurophysiologically relevant fluids and in tissue, allowing for greater penetration. Importantly, QD behavior differed in cultured slices as compared to monolayer cell cultures, and behavior in cultured slices aligned more closely with that seen in vivo. Irrespective of surface chemistry and brain-relevant platform, non-aggregated QDs were primarily internalized by microglia in a region-dependent manner both in slices and in vivo upon systemic administration. This knowledge will help guide further engineering of candidate QD-based imaging probes for neurological application.