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Quantum dots may safely treat cancer

U. BUFFALO (US) — Quantum dots may hold promise as tools for treating and detecting diseases like cancer, new research shows.

A pioneering study to gauge the toxicity of the tiny crystals in primates shows they are safe over a one-year period, a hopeful outcome for doctors and scientists seeking new ways to battle diseases through nanomedicine.

In the study, published online in Nature Nanotechnology, scientists found that four rhesus monkeys injected with cadmium-selenide quantum dots remained in normal health over 90 days. Blood and biochemical markers stayed in typical ranges, and major organs developed no abnormalities. The animals didn’t lose weight.

Transmission electron microscopy shows clusters of quantum dots. In application, each cluster is encased in a single capsule with an average size near 50 nanometers. (Credit: University at Buffalo)


Two monkeys observed for an additional year also showed no signs of illness.

Quantum dots are tiny luminescent crystals that glow brightly in different colors. Medical researchers are eyeing the crystals for use in image-guided surgery, light-activated therapies, and sensitive diagnostic tests. Cadmium-selenide quantum dots are among the most studied, with potential applications not only in medicine, but as components of solar cells, quantum computers, light-emitting diodes, and more.

The new toxicity study begins to address the concern that quantum dots may be dangerous to humans.

More research is needed to determine the nanocrystals’ long-term effects in primates, the researchers say. Most of the potentially toxic cadmium from the quantum dots stayed in the liver, spleen, and kidneys of the animals studied over the 90-day period.

“This is the first study that uses primates as animal models for in vivo studies with quantum dots,” says study co-author Paras Prasad, professor of chemistry and medicine and the University at Buffalo and executive director of the Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics.

“So far, such toxicity studies have focused only on mice and rats, but humans are very different from mice. More studies using animal models that are closer to humans are necessary.”

The cadmium build-up, in particular, is a serious concern that warrants further investigation, says Ken-Tye Yong, a Nanyang Technological University assistant professor who began working with Prasad on the study as a postdoctoral researcher at Buffalo.

Because of that concern, the best in-vivo applications for cadmium-selenide quantum dots in medicine may be the ones that use the crystals in a limited capacity, says Mark Swihart, a third coauthor and a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Buffalo.

Image-guided surgery, which could involve a single dose of quantum dots to identify a tumor or other target area, falls into this category.

Researchers from ChangChun University of Science and Technology in China contributed to the study, which was supported by the John R. Oishei Foundation, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Singapore Ministry of Education, Nanyang Technological University, the Beijing Natural Science Foundation, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

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