Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology, 2010, 1, 439-443 ABB
doi:10.4236/abb.2010.15057 Published Online December 2010 (
Published Online December 2010 in SciRes.
Influence of magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles on red blood
cells and Caco-2 cells
Daniel Moersdorf1, Pierre Hugounenq1, Lai Truonc Phuoc2, Hind Mamlouk-Chaouachi2,
Delphine Felder-Flesch2, Sylvie Begin-Colin2, Geneviève Pourroy2, Ingolf Bernhardt1
1Laboratory of Biophysics, Saarland University, Campus, Building A2.4, 66123 Saarbruecken, Germany;
2Institut de Physique et Chimie des Matériaux de Strasbourg, UMR 7504 CNRS-Université de Strasbourg-ECPM, 23 rue du Loess,
67034 Strasbourg Cedex 2, France.
Received 14 September 2010; revised 22 October 2010; accepted 26 October 2010.
The interactions of two types o f cells (red blood cells,
Caco-2 cells) with magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles
(non-grafted, citrate-grafted, dendrimer-grafted) of
11 nm in size have been investigated. We focused on
two important physiological parameters of the cells,
the intracellular pH and the intracellular Ca2+ con-
tent. The results show that the nanoparticles do not
have a significant influence on the pH and Ca2+ con-
tent of Caco-2 cells. The Ca2+ content of red blood
cells is also not affected but the intracellular pH is
slightly reduced.
Keywords: Red Blood Cells; Caco-2 Cells; Ca2+
Content; Intracellular PH; Mag netic Iron Oxide
One of the main topics in biotechnology relies on the
development of various systems, ranging in the nano-
and submicronic scales for diagnostics, imaging, drug
delivery, or cancer therapy [1,2]. These systems com-
prise association between organic self-assembled vehi-
cles (vesicles, emulsions, microbubbles, dendrimers) and
inorganic nanoparticles. Designing and synthesizing
hybrid materials combining at least two of these com-
ponents are of the utmost importance since such materi-
als can ensure a strong versatility and adaptability. This
is the aim of project in which this study has been
achieved [Nanomagdye FP7 EU Project grant agreement
nr NMP3-SL-2008-214032]. However, before combin-
ing each component, the toxicity towards cells has to be
In our studies, magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles non-
coated or coated with citrate or dendrons have been
tested on cells. We first investigate the effect on physio-
logical parameters of RBCs. As fundamental physio-
logical parameters, the intracellular Ca2+ content as well
as the intracellular pH (pHi) have been chosen. These
parameters can be measured using fluorescent dyes. For
comparison and as an example of cancer cells, which are
targets for nanoparticles in medical treatment, Caco-2
cells have been chosen. It should be mentioned that
RBCs and Caco-2 cells differ in one main fundamental
aspect – no end ocytosis occurs in RBCs whereas Caco-2
cells have such a mechanism [3].
Many publications report experiments on the interac-
tion of targeted tissues or cells and nanoparticles. How-
ever, it is sometimes unclear whether these particles
show unspecific reactions with other tissues or cells they
come in contact with [4]. For example, nanoparticles
injected into the blood stream and therefore, coming in
contact with red blood cells (RBCs), could adhere to the
surface of the cells (and in this case not move to the tar-
get cells) or even enter the cells. Such an uptake of
nanoparticles by RBCs has been reported by Geiser et al.
[5] and Rothen-Rutishauser et al. [6]. In addi tion, in bot h
cases nanoparticles could affect physiological parame-
ters of the cells. For instance, it has been reported that
iron oxide nanoparticles can increase the membrane
permeability of human microvascular endothelial cells
The influence of bare iron oxide nanoparticles (11 nm
diameter) and decorated with an organic shell (citrate or
dendrimer) on the intracellular pH (pHi) and the intra-
cellular Ca2+ content of RBCs and Caco-2 cells has been
2.1. Nanoparticles
The bare, citrated or dendronized nanoparticles used were
D. Moersdorf et al. / Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology 1 (2010) 439-443
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. ABB
synthesized at IPCMS, Strasbourg. The non grafted iron
oxide nanoparticles were prepared according to the
method of Daou et al. [8] by coprecipitation at 70
from ferrous Fe2+ and ferric Fe3+ ions and a (N(CH3)4OH)
solution. The nanoparticles were characterized by X-ray
diffraction (XRD), magnetic measurements and micros-
copy techniques. They exhibit the magnetite spinel
structure and a lattice parameter of 0.8379 ± 0.0004 nm
corresponding to an intermediate phase between maghe-
mite and magnetite written Fe3-xO4. They are 11 ± 2 nm
in size deduced from TEM measurements and XRD
characterizations. A generation zero dendritic molecule
(C41H77O22P, 953.02 g/mol) was grafted at their surface
by mean of a phosphonate coupling agent following the
method described by Daou et al. [9] and Basly et al.
Citrate coated nanoparticles were obtained by intro-
ducing sodium citrate in a water suspension of nanopar-
ticles and adjusting the pH at 4.0 with a buffer solution.
Then the suspension was mechanically stirred for 24 h,
washed with water and centrifuged several times. Water
is finally added in order to obtain a stable suspension of
citrated nanoparticles.
2.2. Preparation of RBCs
The blood used for experiments was given by healthy
human donors, stored at 4 not longer than 24 h, and
washed three times by centrifug ation at 2000 g for 5 min
at room temperature in a physiological solution contain-
ing 145 mM NaCl, 7.5 mM KCl, 10 mM glucose, 10
mM HEPES, pH 7.4.
2.3. Preparation of CaCo-2 Cells
The Caco-2 cells were cultured in Dulbeccos modified
Eagle medium. For detaching and separation the cells
were trypsinated and washed three times by centrifuga-
tion at 2000 g for 5 min at room temperature in physio-
logical solution.
2.4. Loading with Fluorescent Dyes
For intracellular Ca2+ and the intracellular pH measure-
ments the fluorescent dye fluo-4 AM and BCECF AM
were used, respectively. Stock solutions of the fluores-
cent dyes (1 mM) in Pluronic F-127 20% in DMSO
(Molecular Probes, USA)) were prepared. The dyes were
added to the washed and re-suspended cells (0.2% v/v)
at a concentration of 2 nM. After incubation for 30 min
at 37 the cells were washed three times (2000 g, 5 min)
to remove free dye in the medium surrounding the cells.
2.5. Treatment of Cells with Nanoparticles
The cells loaded with the dye (fluo-4 AM or BCECF AM)
were incubated in a ph ysiological solution con taining 5 -
50 µg/ml of nanoparticles for 30 min at 37. The ex-
posure time of 30 min has been selected to be able to
measure changes of fast as well as slow processes of
cellular reactions.
2.6. Fluorescence Measurements
After the 30 min incubatio n the cells were transferred on
a cover slip and after 5 min (necessary time to let the
cells settle down) the fluorescence intensity was meas-
ured with a fluorescence microscope (Eclipse TE2000-E,
Nikon, Japan) for single cell investigations. Flow cy-
tometry (FACScalibur, Becton Dickinson Bioscience,
USA) measurements were carried out to investigate an
higher amount of cells. In this case the cell suspension
was immediately measured after the 30 min incubation.
2.7. Calibration for PHi Determination
A calibration curve of the fluorescence intensity de-
pending on pH was created, using the K+/H+ ionophore
nigericin. For this reason 5 µM nigericin was added to
RBCs suspended in the calibration buffer solutions con-
taining 135 mM KCl, 10 mM NaCl, 10 mM glucose, 10
mM HEPES/NaOH [11,12]. The calibration curve was
linear in the pH range 6.5-8.0.
2.8. Reagents and Dyes
The chemicals used were purchased from VWR (Ger-
many) and Sigma Aldrich (USA). Fluorescent dyes from
Molecular Probes (USA) were used for analysing the
physiological parameters.
2.9. Statistical Treatment of Results
The data are presented as mean values ± SD of inde-
pendent experiments. The significance of differences
was tested by paired or unpaired Student’s t-test. Differ-
ences were considered significant if p < 0.05. Each ex-
periment was repeated at least 3 times on blood from
different donors. For Ca2+ and pHi determinations using
the fluorescence microscope at least 3 measurements
(with blood from 3 different donors and at least 10 single
cells from each blood, i.e. 30 single cells) were carried
out for each experimental condition. For the FACS ex-
periments 3 measurements (with blood from 3 different
donors and 30.000 cells from each blood) were carried
out and analysed und er each experimental condition.
The effect of non grafted, citrate grafted or dendronized
nanoparticles on the intracellular Ca2+ content as well as
on the pHi of RBCs and Caco-2 cells is shown in Figure
1. These two cellular parameters are largely independent
from each other and play an important role for many
relevant physiological processes. For example, they in-
D. Moersdorf et al. / Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology 1 (2010) 439-443
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. ABB
fluence the activity of cellular and membrane proteins,
membrane ion transport as well as other membrane-
bound processes ( e.g., the interaction of the cytoskeleton
with the cell membrane). In addition , changes in the pHi
of RBCs are expected to happen in a relatively short
time (some seconds), whereas changes in the intracellu-
lar Ca2+ content of RBCs are expected to occur in some
minutes only [13,14].
As one can see from Figures 1(a) and 1(b) there is no
significant effect of any type of nanoparticles on the
Ca2+ content of both cell types. However, it must be
noted that the error bars (S.D.) are relatively high for
RBCs (Figure 1(a)). The arbitrary units of the fluores-
cence intensity of single cells in the presence of the dif-
(a) (b)
(c) (d)
Figure 1. Fluorescence intensity of fluo-4 labelled RBCs (a) and Caco-2 cells (b) as well as intracellular pH (measured
with BCECF) of RBCs (c) and Caco-2 cells (d). Measurements have been carried out with fluorescence microscope
after 30 min of incubation of the cells with the nanoparticles. Each type of nanoparticles has been investigated with
10-20 cells of at least 3 different bloods.The results are shown as mean values ± S.D. * indicate values which are
statistical significant different from control (p < 0.01).
D. Moersdorf et al. / Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology 1 (2010) 439-443
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. ABB
ferent nanoparticles vary only between 0 and 20. The
reason is that the intracellular Ca 2+ content of these cells
is very low and close to the detection minimum using
fluo-4 as the Ca2+-sensitive fluorescent dye. It is well
known that the intracellular Ca2+ content of RBCs is
very low [15,16] and it has been previously reported by
our group that the ratiometric Ca2+-sensitive fluorescent
dye fura-2 is not applicable for RBCs and that only
fluo-4 is useful to monitor reasonable qualitative changes
of the intracellular Ca2+ content (see [15] for more de-
To clarify the big variation of the fluorescence inten-
sities of fluo-4, i.e. the Ca2+ content of the RBCs shown
in Fig. 1a, comparable flow cytometry (FACS) investi-
gations have been carried out. This method allows con-
sidering 30.000 cells in one single experiment, i.e. for
one blood sample. Figure 2 shows a characteristic ex-
ample of such flow cytometry measurement (one of
three) for 2 types of nanoparticles in comparison to con-
trol. It can be clearly seen that the fluorescence peaks are
identical, supporting the finding that there is no signifi-
cant increase of the intracellular Ca2+ content when the
RBCs are exposed to the nanoparticles. It should be
mentioned that one big advantage of fluorescence mi-
croscopy is that single cells can be monitored over a
certain time period. This allows seeing differences in
cellular reactions and morphological changes and possi-
ble destructions of individual cells. In addition, some
physiological parameters of RBCs are affected by shear
forces [17,18], which might be also the case during the
process of cell flow through the capillary in a flow cy-
Figure 1(c) shows that the pHi of RBCs is slightly but
significantly lowered after the cells are in contact with
the different nanoparticles (compared to the control
value). However, such effect in the range of 0.1 to 0.3
pH units seems not of fundamental physiological rele-
vance. It has to be stated that the pHi value for the con-
trol is already about 0.1 to 0.2 units below the expected
(literature) value [13]. The small effect of the nanoparti-
cles on the pHi of RBCs could be due to the fact that
RBCs can regulate their pH very efficiently and rapidly.
Each RBC contains 106 copies of a protein (band 3) re-
sponsible for the gas (HCO3-/Cl-) exchange and some
other proteins for pH regulation like the Na+/H+ ex-
changer [14,19]. The band 3 protein occupying a sub-
stantial area of the outer membrane surface [20] could be
easily affected by the nanoparticles. Although HCO3-
was not explicitly added to the so lutions, there is enough
bicarbonate present (from the air-containing CO2 dis-
solving in the solutions) that the HCO3-/Cl- exchanger is
fully functioning. Furthermore, this exchanger also op-
erates as a Cl-/Cl- exchanger and therefore normally no
Figure 2. Fluorescence intensity of fluo-4 labelled RBCs.
Measurements have been carried out with flow cytometry after
30 min of incubation of the cells without (control) and with
nanoparicles (citrate grafted, dendromer grafted). For each
measurement 30.000 cells were analysed. The figure shows
one single experiment, representative for 3 different blood
HCO3- has to be added when investigating RBC mem-
brane transport [14].
Figure 1(d) shows that there is no significant effect of
the various nanoparticles on pHi of Caco-2 cells.
In the described experiments investigating the effect
of nanoparticles on RBCs (Figs. 1a and 1c) no haemoly-
sis was observed. On the contrary, a haemolytic effect of
magnetic nanoparticles (magnetite colloidal nanoparti-
cles stabilised with citric acid) on animal RBCs was re-
ported by Creanga et al. [21]. However, the authors
mentioned that further investigations must be done to
explain how nanoparticles can induce haemolysis of
Nanoparticles can influence physiological parameters of
cells. In our investigations we found a small but signifi-
cant effect of nanoparticles on the intracellular pH (pHi)
of RBCs. The pHi of Caco-2 cells was not affected by
the nanoparticles. The intracellular Ca2+ content of RBCs
as well as Caco-2 cells did not significantly change
when the cells were exposed to nanop articles. Therefore,
nanoparticles have to be tested not only with respect to
their effect on target cells but also in respect of interac-
tions with cells they can co me in contact with, especially
The research leading to these results has received funding from the
European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7 2007-
2013) under grant agreement nr NMP3-SL-2008-214032.
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