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Jagged Graphene Can Rip Human Cells Apart

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Jul 11, 2013 01:15 PM EDT
The bottom corner of a piece of graphene penetrates a cell membrane. Mechanical properties — rough edges, sharp corners — can make graphene dangerous to human cells. Scale bar represents two microns
A jagged piece of graphene – the one-atom-thick supermaterial – is able to cut open human cells, an enlightening find that may be an alarm of future hazards as researchers try to further their understanding of the material. (Photo : Kane Lab / Brown University )

A jagged piece of graphene -- the one-atom-thick supermaterial -- is able to cut open human cells, an enlightening find that may be an alarm of future hazards as researchers try to further their understanding of the material.

Researchers from Brown University found that sharp corners and jagged edges on sheets of graphene can easily pierce cell membranes. What's more, after graphene pierces the cell wall, it can enter the cell itself where it may cause disruption to cell function.

The new insight may prove useful in understanding how to minimize the potential toxicity of graphene, as little is understood about the effects graphene may have if internalized in a human body.

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"These materials can be inhaled unintentionally, or they may be intentionally injected or implanted as components of new biomedical technologies," said Robert Hurt, professor of engineering and one of the study's authors. "So we want to understand how they interact with cells once inside the body."

Graphene was discovered about a decade ago and has proven to be a veritable wunderkind of scientific advancement: it is the strongest material known to science and has an array of electronic, mechanical and photonic properties that researchers suspect will lead to significant technological breakthroughs in commercial appliances such as batteries, solar cells and medical devices.

Yet graphene is far from completely understood, which lead the researchers to test the material's effect on cell structure.

"At a fundamental level, we want understand the features of these materials that are responsible for how they interact with cells," said study author Agnes Kane, of Brown's department of pathology and laboratory medicine. "If there's some feature that is responsible for its toxicity, then maybe the engineers can engineer it out."

Kane's preliminary research on graphene led her to understand that graphene could enter cells, but until now it was unclear exactly how it found its way in, partly because in prior experiments researchers incorrectly assumed that the material always took the shape of a perfect square. In reality, graphene can have odd, jagged shapes after being peeled away from larger chunks of graphite.

This latest bit of information about the nature of graphene will help lead the way toward a better understanding of the potential for graphene toxicity.

"This is about the safe design of nanomaterials," Kane said. "They're man-made materials, so we should be able to be clever and make them safer."

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