Are Quantum Dots Toxic? Exploring the Discrepancy Between Cell Culture and Animal Studies

Kim M Tsoi, Qin Dai, Benjamin A Alman, Warren CW Chan

Acc. Chem. Res. 2013, 46, 3, 662–671 | DOI: 10.1021/ar300040z


Despite significant interest in developing quantum dots (QDs) for biomedical applications, many researchers are convinced that QDs will never be used for treating patients because of their potential toxicity. The perception that QDs are toxic is rooted in two assumptions. Cadmium-containing QDs can kill cells in culture. Many researchers then assume that because QDs are toxic to cells, they must be toxic to humans. In addition, many researchers classify QDs as a homogeneous group of materials. Therefore, if CdSe QDs are harmful, they extrapolate this result to all QDs. Though unsubstantiated, these assumptions continue to drive QD research. When dosing is physiologically appropriate, QD toxicity has not been demonstrated in animal models. In addition, QDs are not uniform: each design is a unique combination of physicochemical properties that influence biological activity and toxicity. In this Account, we summarize key findings from in vitro and in vivo studies, explore the causes of the discrepancy in QD toxicological data, and provide our view of the future direction of the field.