Probing the Cytotoxicity of
Semiconductor Quantum Dots

Austin M. Derfus, Warren C. W. Chan, Sangeeta N. Bhatia

With their bright, photostable fluorescence, semiconductor quantum dots (QDs) show promise as alternatives to organic dyes for biological
labeling. Questions about their potential cytotoxicity, however, remain unanswered. While cytotoxicity of bulk cadmium selenide (CdSe) is well
documented, a number of groups have suggested that CdSe QDs are cytocompatible, at least with some immortalized cell lines. Using primary
hepatocytes as a liver model, we found that CdSe-core QDs were indeed acutely toxic under certain conditions. Specifically, we found that the
cytotoxicity of QDs was modulated by processing parameters during synthesis, exposure to ultraviolet light, and surface coatings. Our data
further suggest that cytotoxicity correlates with the liberation of free Cd2+ ions due to deterioration of the CdSe lattice. When appropriately
coated, CdSe-core QDs can be rendered nontoxic and used to track cell migration and reorganization in vitro. Our results provide information
for design criteria for the use of QDs in vitro and especially in vivo, where deterioration over time may occur.