The biological effect of graphene-related materials on different human and animal cells was investigated in several studies. However, the results and conclusions are partly inconsistent.


Several authors have emphasized the fact that carbon-containing particles may cause difficulties for the evaluation of experiments when used in cell culture test-systems [1-4]. This is also true for graphene-related materials [5]. Interactions of these particles with e.g. dyes can lead to false-positive and, thus, invalid results that do not allow statements on the toxicity of carbon-containing particles. Therefore it has been recommended to apply a second test method to verify the obtained results [1, 5].


Like carbon nanotubes graphene-related materials are tested e.g. as candidates for the treatment of cancer. One key-requirement for such application is the compatibility with human blood. Liao and colleagues did detect a dose-dependent rupture or destruction of red blood cells. In contrast, graphene oxide that has been coated with chitosan prevents the destruction of red blood cells [5].


Furthermore, researchers could detect a loss of viability and the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in human skin cells, in which the respective form of the material – graphene oxides or graphene layers – seemed to play a significant role: aggregated graphene layers are more toxic to the cells than reversibly aggregated graphene oxides.
In another recent study the authors report that lung cells treated with graphene oxide don't show any morphological changes or problems with adherence and growth. Additionally, no significant loss in viability, membrane damage or cell death such as apoptosis or necrosis are detectable. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) analysis shows integrity of cellular structures and no graphene oxide can be detected within the cells. However, exposure to even low doses of graphene oxide induced oxidative stress. In another study graphene-nanoshells didn't cause morphological changes of cells. There was no toxicity detectable although the material generated oxidative stress, too. In addition the intracellular uptake of graphene-nanoshells by lung cells was observable in TEM-pictures [6].


One study shows dose-dependent membrane damage in macrophages by graphene-nanoplatelets, which trigger oxidative stress and the release of inflammatory markers [7].
Duch and colleagues couldn't find apoptosis in macrophages when they treated them with well-dispersed or aggregated graphene-materials. In contrast, they observed apoptosis when they incubated the same cells with larger graphene-layers [8].


Depending on the cell type, the type of graphene-related materials and the type of coating cellular stress, cell damage and even apoptosis can be induced (mainly through lipophilic coatings) whereas the cells remain vital even at the highest concentrations (in case of hydrophilic coatings).


Literature arrow down

  1. Woerle-Knirsch, JM et al. (2006), Nano Lett, 6(6): 1261-1268
  2. Pulskamp, K et al. (2007), Toxicol Lett, 168(1): 58-74
  3. Monteiro-Riviere, NA et al. (2006), Carbon, 44(6): 1070-1078
  4. Monteiro-Riviere, NA et al. (2009), Toxicol Appl Pharmacol, 234(2): 222-235
  5. Liao, KH et al. (2011), ACS Appl Mater Interfaces, 3(7): 2607-2615
  6. Bachmatiuk, A et al. (2013), ACS Nano, 7(12): 10552-10562
  7. Schinwald, A et al. (2012), ACS Nano, 6(1): 736-746
  8. Duch, MC et al. (2011), Nano Lett, 11(12): 5201-5207


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