The study published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the sharp corners and rough edges of graphene can penetrate easily through the membranes and enter the cells, increasing the levels of toxicity.
Graphene is a unique material in many ways. It is essentially a thin sheet of carbon, which aside from being strong, has numerous electronic, photonic and mechanical properties. Although it has been discovered relatively recently, and there is quite a number of unknowns associated with the material, it has already found application in various fields. Its properties have already been explored in the fields of electronics, solar energy, medical devices and solar energy among others.
What made the current study particularly interesting is that until now there has been little understanding of the effects of graphene on human health. This is also the reason why the team led by Agnes Kane, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Brown, decided to explore the way the material interacts with human cells if the material happens to be inhaled or implanted into the body.
The problem occurs when small parts of graphene are peeled away or exfoliated from the big square sheet, according to the authors. The odd shape of the pieces, also known as asperities, made the penetration through the cell membrane particularly easy. This was confirmed through a series of experiments with human lung, skin and immune cells.
But the authors do not see their findings as a reasoning against the use of the material. Exactly the opposite. They are convinced that their study provides solid base for future research into means of preventing potential toxicity.
The study provides an opportunity for engineers and material scientists to collaborate in order to interpret the biological impact of the material and hopefully to engineer out the potential toxicity threats.
According to Kane, such collaboration may well lead to safe designs of unique and multifunctional nanomaterials.