Mechanistic studies of in vitro cytotoxicity of poly(amidoamine) dendrimers in mammalian cells

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  • yyaf Te

    Revised 21 July 2010Accepted 16 August 2010

    PAMAM dendrimersCytotoxicityEC50Reactive oxygen species


    dendrimer generation and number of surface amino groups. In this work, using generation G4, G5, and G6c response is furthermore demonstrated for the generation of reactive oxygenand the onset of apoptosis and levels of DNA damage. The results are consistent

    oxidative stress, apoptosis and DNA damage. RO

    Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268

    Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

    Toxicology and Appl

    .e lized (Esfand and Tomalia, 2001) and are recognized as a unique newclass of synthetic nanostructures. Dendrimers allow the precisecontrol of size, shape and placement of functional groups that isadvantageous for many life science applications. Their systematicallyvariable structural architecture and large internal free volume makethese dendrimers an unique class of molecule for various biomedicalapplications including drug (Na et al., 2006; Yiyun et al., 2005), DNA(Guillot-Nieckowski et al., 2007; Kukowska-Latallo et al., 1996), andsiRNA (Zhou et al., 2006) delivery, and as MRI probes (Dear et al.,2006; Swanson et al., 2008) etc.

    It is reported however that PAMAM dendrimers induce oxidativestress by producing reactive oxygen species (ROS) (Lee et al., 2009)and can lead to a cytotoxic response (Mukherjee et al., 2010; Naha etal., 2009). Although the response is mild, the molecular denition andthe systematic variability of the size and structure of the PAMAMdendrimers render them an ideal material in which to study cytotoxicresponses and elucidate their mechanisms. In both mammalian(Mukherjee et al., 2010) and ecotoxicological (Naha et al., 2009)studies, clear structureactivity relationships have been demonstrat-ed, indicating that the toxicity increases in proportion to the surfacePAMAM dendrimers contain a 2-carbon ewhich the terminal amidoamines are attabranched radial structure having tertiary

    Corresponding author. Fax: +353 1 402 7901.E-mail address: (S.P. Mukh

    0041-008X/$ see front matter 2010 Elsevier Inc. Adoi:10.1016/j.taap.2010.08.016s are the rst completeerized and commercial-

    tions (G0G10) the diameter and the number of surface aminogroups systematically increase ( (PAMAM) dendrimerdendrimer family to be synthesized, charactIncreased lysosomal activityApoptosisDNA damage

    Introductiongenerated levels and timescales are systematically generation dependent (G4bG5bG6). Flow cytometryconrms that with increasing dose, the percentage of healthy and early apoptotic cells decreases, whereasthe late apoptotic and necrotic cell populations increase. This process is again systematically generationdependent. DNA damage as measured using the TUNEL assay further demonstrates a systematic trend, G4,G5 and G6 showing 4.69%, 25.87% and 89.63% DNA breakage respectively. Increases in lysosomal activity attimescales of ~24 h are observed in HaCaT but not SW480 cells upon low concentration PAMAM exposure.Overall, signicant differences are observed between the responses of the dermal cell line, HaCaT, and thecolon cell line, SW480, and it is suggested that these can be understood in terms of differing intrinsicantioxidant levels.

    2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    primary amino groups on the surface. With the successive genera-thylenediamine core onched yielding a highlyamine branches and

    area or numberIn this stud

    explored in termlysosomal activitween the respAlamar Blue (ABfurther framedactivity, apoptoserjee).

    ll rights reserved.S production is co-located in the mitochondria, and both

    Keywords: with a pathway of localisation of PAMAM dendrimers in the mitochondria leading to ROS production causingAvailable online 22 August 2010dendrimers, this systematispecies, lysosomal activity,Mechanistic studies of in vitro cytotoxicitmammalian cells

    Sourav Prasanna Mukherjee a,, Fiona M. Lyng a, Amaa Radiation and Environmental Science Centre, Focas Research Institute, Dublin, Institute ob Focas Research Institute, Dublin Institute of Technology, Kevin Street, Dublin 8, Ireland

    a b s t r a c ta r t i c l e i n f o

    Article history:Received 1 April 2010

    Poly(amidoamine) (PAMAMcytotoxicological response

    j ourna l homepage: wwwof poly(amidoamine) dendrimers in

    Garcia a, Maria Davoren a, Hugh J. Byrne b

    chnology, Kevin Street, Dublin 8, Ireland

    dendrimer nanoparticles have been demonstrated to elicit a well denedm mammalian cell lines, the response increasing systematically with

    ied Pharmacology

    sev ie locate /ytaapof surface groups.y, the mechanism of PAMAM toxicity is furthers of generation dependant ROS production, cellularty, apoptosis and DNA damage. Relationships be-onses of the standard cytotoxicity assays MTT,) and Neutral Red (NR) assays are also elucidated andwithin the context of ROS production, lysosomalis and DNA damage.

  • 260 S.P. Mukherjee et al. / Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268Materials and methods

    Test materials. Polyamidoamine (PAMAM) dendrimers, G4, G5 andG6, were purchased from Sigma Aldrich Ltd. (Ireland). All the particleshave an ethylenediamine core and PAMAM G4, G5 and G6 haverespectively 64, 128 and 256 functional primary amino groups on thesurface. The molecular weights of PAMAMG4, G5 and G6 are 14,215 Da,28,826 Da and 58,048 Da respectively. The nominal diameters of thePAMAM G4, G5 and G6 dendrimers are 4.5, 5.4 and 6.7 nm respectively(

    Reagents. 3-(4,5-dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyltetrazolium bro-mide (MTT) and Neutral Red (NR) were purchased from Sigma AldrichLtd. (Ireland). Alamar Blue (AB)was purchased fromBiosource (UK). Cellculture media and supplements were purchased from Sigma Aldrich(Ireland) and Bioscience (Ireland). 5-(and-6)-carboxy-2,7-dichlorou-orescein diacetate (carboxy-H2DCFDA), LysoSensor Green DND-189,LysotrackerGreen DND-26 and MitoTracker Orange CM-H2TMRoswas purchased from Invitrogen (Ireland). Vibrant apoptosis assay kit YO-PRO-1/propidium iodide was purchased from Molecular Probes,Invitrogen (Ireland). APO-DIRECT KIT was purchased from BDBiosciences Pharmingen (U.K.).

    Cell culture. HaCaT cells, an immortal non-cancerous humankeratinocyte cell line, (kindly provided by Prof. Dr. Boukamp,Heidelberg) and SW480 cells (ATCC, CCL-228), a primary adenocar-cinoma cell line of the colon, were employed for testing. SW480 cellswere cultured in Dulbecco's Modied Eagle's Medium NutrientMixture F-12 HAM with 2 mM L-glutamine supplemented with 10%fetal bovine serum (FBS), 45 IU ml1 penicillin and 45 IU ml1

    streptomycin at 37 C in 5% CO2. HaCaT cells were cultured in thesame cell culture medium under the same conditions with theaddition of 1 g/ml hydrocortisone.

    Preparation of dendrimer solutions. Dendrimer test solutions wereprepared in the respective cell culture media. They were readilysoluble in the media at 37 C and were dispersed uniformly by lowspeed vortex. The concentration ranges used for the cytotoxicityassays with G4, G5 and G6 were 0.0121.1 M, 0.035.2 M and 0.015.168 M respectively for HaCaT cells and 0.017.03 M, 0.035.2 Mand 0.015.168 M respectively for SW480 cells. Concentrationranges were chosen as identied in a previous study of PAMAMdendrimer cytotoxicity (Mukherjee et al., 2010). For ROS, Lysosensor,Lysotracker and Mitotracker studies, the concentrations used forHaCaT cells with G4 were 1.623.2 M, with G5 were 0.55.75 M andwith G6 were 0.53.17 M. For ROS in SW480 cells the concentrationsused for G4 were 0.7210.8 M, for G5 were 0.184.33 M, and for G6were 0.581.87 M. For the apoptosis study the concentrations usedfor HaCaT cells with G4 were 3.2123.16 M, with G5 were 1.075.75 M, andwith G6were 1.023.17 M. In the TUNEL assay, PAMAMG4 was used at concentrations of 3.17 M and 23.16 M, G5 at aconcentration of 3.17 M and 5.75 M, and G6 at a concentration of3.17 M.

    Alamar Blue (AB) and Neutral Red (NR) assays. AB and NR assaysare standard cytotoxicity assays. The AB assay measures the generalcellular metabolism (O'Brien et al., 2000), whereas the NR assaymeasures the lysosomal activity of the cell (Repetto et al., 2008; Yanget al., 2007). For the AB and NR assays, cells were seeded in 96-wellmicroplates (Nunc, Denmark) at a density of 1105 cells/ml in 100 lof respective media containing 10% FBS. After 24 h of cell attachment,plates were washed with 100 l/well PBS and the cells were treatedwith increasing concentrations of each generation of dendrimer,prepared in 5% FBS containing media for 24 h. All incubations were

    performed at 37 C in a 5% CO2 humidied incubator. Six replicatewells were used for each control and test concentrations permicroplate.

    The AB followed by the NR assays were conducted consecutivelyon the same set of plates. The assays were carried out according to themanufacturer's instructions. Briey, control media or test exposureswere removed; the cells were rinsed with PBS and 100 l of AB/NRmedium (5% [v/v] solution of AB and 1.25% [v/v] of NR dye) preparedin freshmedia (without FBS or supplements) were added to eachwell.After 3 h incubation, AB uorescence was measured at the respectiveexcitation and emission wavelengths of 531 nm and 595 nm in aVICTOR3V 1420 Multilabel Counter (Perkin Elmer, USA). Wellshaving only AB and media were used as blanks. After measurement,the wells were then washed with PBS and 100 l of NR xative (50%ethanol, 49% dH2O and 1% glacial acetic acid) were added to each welland the plates were shaken at 240 rpm for 10 min. The NRuorescence was then measured at the excitation and emissionwavelengths of 531 nm and 642 nm respectively in the sameinstrument. For both assays, mean uorescent units for the sixreplicate cultures were calculated for each exposure treatment.

    MTT (3-[4,5-Dimethylthiazol-2-yl]-2,5-diphenyl tetrazolium bromide)assay. MTT assay is also a standard cytotoxicity assay and measuresthe mitochondrial metabolism of the cell from its mitochondrialoxidoreductase enzyme activity (Loveland et al., 1992). A parallel setof plates was set up for the MTT assay and seeded and exposed in anidentical manner as described in Alamar Blue (AB) and Neutral Red(NR) assays section. After 24 h of PAMAM dendrimer exposure, themedium for the control or test exposures was removed, the cells werewashed with PBS and 100 l of freshly prepared MTT in media (5 mg/ml of MTT in media [without FBS or supplements]) were added toeach well. After 3 h incubation, the medium was discarded and thecells were rinsed with PBS and 100 l of MTT xative solution(isopropanol with 0.04 N HCl) were added to each well and the plateswere shaken at 240 rpm for 10 min. The absorbance was thenmeasured at 595 nm in a TECAN GENios (Grodig, Austria) platereader.

    Lysosensor, Lysotracker and Mitotracker studies. The HaCaT cellswere seeded at a density of 1106 cells/ml in glass bottom Petridishes for confocal uorescence microscopic study and 1105 cells/ml in 96wellmicroplates for quantitative study using the plate reader,in 10% FBS supplemented media and incubated at 37 C in 5% CO2 for24 h for cell attachment before exposure to the dendrimers. Sixconcentrations of each generation of dendrimer were prepared in 5%FBS supplemented media and the cells were exposed for 24 h.Following the exposure period, the cells were washed twice withpre-warmed PBS (37 C). The Lysosensor/Mitotracker dye solutionwas prepared using concentrations of 2 M and 250 nM respectivelyin pre-warmed PBS. Cells were stained with the dye solution for30 min in a 37 C, 5% CO2 incubator. Following staining, the cells werewashed 3 times with pre-warmed PBS to ensure complete removal ofunloaded dyes. Confocal microscopic images were then taken using aZeiss Confocal Fluorescence Microscope (LSM 510 META, Version 3.2SP2, Carl Zeiss, Germany). For the Lysosensor assay, the excitationwavelength used was 488 nm and the uorescence emission wasdetected using a 505530 nm band pass lter. For the Mitotrackerassay, the excitation wavelength used was 543 nm and the uores-cence emission was detected using a 560 nm long pass lter.Lysosomal activity was also quantied with Lysosensor andLysotracker dye in a TECAN GENios (Grodig, Austria) plate reader.The Lysosensor dye used in this assay is a pH sensitive dye and canonly quantify lysosomes of pH 5.2. It has recently been indicated thatlocalisation of G5 PAMAM dendrimers in lysosomes can cause anincrease in pH, however (Thomas et al., 2009). Thus Lysotracker,independent of the pH, was employed for quantifying cellular

    lysosomal activity. For this study, HaCaT cells were seeded in 96

  • well microplates at a density of 1105 cells/ml in 100 l of respectivemedia containing 10% FBS. Following 24 h cell attachment the cellswere washed with pre-warmed PBS and exposed to 6 differentconcentrations of PAMAM of each generation. After 2, 4, 6 and 24 hexposures, the cells were washed twice with PBS and stained with2 M Lysosensor and 75 nM Lysotracker separately in PBS in two

    concentration of 10 M and the Petri dishes were kept in a 37 C, 5%CO2 incubator for 1 h. Following incubation, the dye solution wasremoved, the cells werewashed twice with PBS andwere treatedwith1 M concentrations of G6 dendrimer, prepared in 5% FBS containingmedia. Following 1 h and 24 h exposures, the cells were washed twicewith pre-warmed PBS (37 C). The Mitotracker dye solution was

    Table 1EC50 concentrations from AB, NR and MTT assays of PAMAM G4, G5 and G6 upon 24 h exposure to HaCaT and SW480 cells (reproduced from Mukherjee et al., 2010).


    EC50 in M [Condence Interval]


    HaCaT SW480 HaCaT SW480 HaCaT SW480

    MTT assay 3.21 [2.893.52] 1.44 [1.281.6] 1.07 [0.641.5] 0.37 [0.180.55] 1.02 [0.921.13] 1.16 [0.761.56]Alamar Blue assay 16.35 [13.6919.02] 8.3 [7.269.33] 1.89 [1.352.43] 3.12 [2.643.59] 1.30 [11.59] 1.56 [1.231.88]Neutral Red assay 23.16 [16.4329.88] 10.8 [8.5713.03] 5.75 [3.987.52] 4.33 [3.894.76] 3.17 [2.383.96] 1.87 [1.462.27]

    261S.P. Mukherjee et al. / Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268independent experiments for 30 min in a 37 C, 5% CO2 incubator.Then the cells were washed 3 times with pre-warmed PBS to ensurecomplete removal of unloaded dyes and the measurement wasundertaken in the plate reader at excitation and emissionwavelengths of 488 nm and 535 nm respectively.

    Intracellular reactive oxygen species study. Carboxy-H2DCFDA dyewas used to study the intracellular reactive oxygen species generationin HaCaT cells. The study was performed in black 96-well microplates(Nunc, Denmark), wherein the cells were seeded at a density of1105 cells/ml in 100 l of respective media containing 10% FBS.After 24 h of cell attachment, the cells were washed twice with100 l/well PBS and carboxy-DCFDA dye was added at a concentra-tion of 10 M in 100 l/well and the plates were kept in a 37 C, 5%CO2 incubator for 1 h. Following incubation, the dye solution wasremoved, the cells were washed twice with 100 l/well PBS and weretreated with 6 concentrations of each generation of dendrimer,prepared in 5% FBS containing media. The uorescence measurementof the oxidized DCFDA dye wasmeasured between 1 h to 4 h and after24 h exposures in HaCaT cells and between 30 min to 6 h and after24 h exposures in SW480 cells at the respective excitation andemission wavelengths of 490 nm and 545 nm in a TECAN GENios(Grodig, Austria) plate reader. The HaCaT cells were also seeded at adensity of 1106 cells/ml, in glass bottom Petri dishes for confocaluorescencemicroscopic study. After 24 h of cell attachment, the cellswere washed twice with PBS and carboxy-DCFDA dye was added at a





    G4 G5 G6-40










    1.73 2.6 3.1 3.5







    .88 19.7

    PAMAM concentration in M

    % o

    f cyt


    Fig. 1. Concentration dependant effect of PAMAM G4, G5 and G6 on HaCaT cellsobserved in NR assay.prepared at a concentration of 250 nM in pre-warmed PBS. Cells werestained with the dye solution for 30 min in a 37 C, 5% CO2 incubator.Following staining, the cells were washed 3 times with pre-warmedPBS to ensure complete removal of unloaded dyes. Confocalmicroscopic images were then taken immediately using a ZeissConfocal Fluorescence Microscope (LSM 510 META, Version 3.2 SP2,Carl Zeiss, Germany).

    Apoptosis study. This study was performed using a Partec FlowCytometer (Partec UK Limited, U.K.). The HaCaT cells were seeded in 6well plates at a density of 1105 cells/ml in 10% FBS media andincubated in a 5% CO2 incubator at 37 C for 24 h for cell attachment.The cells were then exposed to 3 concentrations of dendrimers for24 h. Following exposure, the cells were washed twice with pre-warmed PBS and were collected by trypsinization, whereafter thetrypsin was removed by centrifugation. The cells were then washedtwice with pre-warmed PBS and stained with the YO-PRO-1/Propidium iodide dyes where 1 l of each dye was used to stain1106 cell/ml. The cells were then incubated on ice for 30 min andthen analysed in the ow cytometer within 1.5 h.

    TUNEL assay (terminal dUTP nick-end labelling assay). For the TUNELassay, HaCaT cells were seeded in T25 asks at a density of 1106

    cells/ml, and following 24 h dendrimer exposure, were washed twicewith PBS and collected in respective vials by trypsinization. The cellswere then xed with 4% paraformaldehyde in PBS (pH 7.4) and stored








    0 1 2 3 4 5 6

    PAMAM concentration in M

    % o

    f cyt




    Fig. 2. Concentration dependant effect of PAMAM G4, G5 and G6 on SW480 cellsobserved in NR assay.

  • in 70% ethanol at 20 C for 24 h. The cells were then stainedfollowing the APO-DIRECT KIT (BD Pharmingen, U.K.) protocoland were analysed in the Partec Flow Cytometer (Partec UK Limited,U.K.).

    Statistics. Fluorescence, as uorescent units (FUs), and absorbancewere all quantied using either of two microplate readers(VICTOR3V 1420 Multilabel Counter, Perkin Elmer, USA andTECAN GENios, Grodig, Austria) for the MTT, AB, NR, Lysosensor,Lysotracker and ROS assay. The apoptosis study and TUNEL assaywereperformed using a Partec Flow Cytometer (Partec UK Limited, U.K.)where the analyses were performed using MoFlo and CyAn ADPSummit software (Version 4.3, DAKO, Denmark). The gating used forapoptosis analysis is presented in Fig. 9. Experiments were conductedin at least triplicate (three independent experiments). The quantita-tive measurement of all the assays was expressed as mean percentageincrease relative to unexposed controlSD. Control valueswere set at0%. Statistical analyses were carried out using the paired Student's t-test in Microsoft Excel (ID Business Solutions, UK) where 95%signicance levels were accepted.


    AB, NR, and MTT assays

    A generation dependent toxic response of PAMAM dendrimers,whereby the toxicity increases with increasing generation has alreadybeen reported (Table 1, reproduced from Mukherjee et al., 2010). Inthe 24 h exposure study, the MTT assay was found to be mostsensitive, the NR assay the least. In general, SW480 cells were seen to




    0 5 10 15 20 25

    PAMAM G4 concentration (M)

    % o

    f Cyt



    AB assayNR assayMTT assay

    Fig. 3. Correlation of EC50 concentrations from MTT and AB assay with the doseresponse found in NR assay upon PAMAM G4 exposure to HaCaT cells.

    a b c

    262 S.P. Mukherjee et al. / Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268d e

    Fig. 4. LysosensorMitotracker Study on HaCaT cells after 24 h exposure of PAMAM G6 a)e) 3.17 M (EC50 NR). For every quadrate photos Top Left: only Lysosensor staining viewRight: combined view of Lysosensor and Mitotracker staining. Fig. 4f is a digital magnicatf

    0 M Control, b) 0.5 M (below EC50 MTT), c) 1.02 M (EC50 MTT) , d) 1.3 M (EC50 AB),, Top Right: phase contrast view, Bottom Left: only Mitotracker staining view, Bottom

    ion of the combined view of Fig. 4a.

  • be lower than the control (Fig. 5). The increase in lysosomal activity isalso dependant on the generation of PAMAM, whereby G6 showedhighest lysosomal activity and G4 the lowest. Such signicantlysosomal stimulatory activity was not observed after 24 h exposureof PAMAM in the lysotracker assay in SW480 cells. However, a smallincrease was observed between 1.5 M and 1.87 M of PAMAM G6concentration after 6 h exposure (data not shown). The Mitotrackerstudy using confocal microscopy showed a decrease in mitotrackerstaining with increasing PAMAM concentration and followed thetrend observed in the MTT assay (Fig. 4). This study was conducted tovisually counter prove the observations from MTT assay at thatconcentration range.

    Intracellular reactive oxygen species study

    The ROS study suggests that, in both HaCaT and SW480 cells, ROS isproduced in a biphasic way. An initial increase in ROS levels wasobserved during therst hours but this decreased after ~4 h exposure inHaCaT cells and after 1 h exposure in SW480 cells. A later rise in ROSlevelswas observedafter 24 h exposure inHaCaT cells (Fig. 6a),whereasthis intracellular ROS increase was observed after 2 h of PAMAMexposure in SW480 cells (Fig. 6b). The time of ROS generation is alsodependent on the generation of PAMAM. In HaCaT cells, the initialmaximum for G6 occurs after 1 h exposure, while G5 and G4 exhibitmaxima after 2 h and 3 h exposure respectively. After 24 h PAMAMexposure in HaCaT cells, the amount of late ROS formation is alsogeneration dependant, G6 producing the largest amount of ROS and G4the least (Fig. 6a). In SW480 cells, an initial increase is evident in thersthour of exposurewhichdecreases at oneandhalf hours of exposure. The

    263S.P. Mukherjee et al. / Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268-100







    0.51 1.02 1.16 1.3 2.235 3.17PAMAM G6 concentration in M

    % o

    f int



    r lys


    al c


    ntf i



    lar l













    bexhibit a higher sensitivity to the dendrimers than the HaCaT cells,however, using the NR assay, at lower concentrations of all threePAMAM generations, an apparent stimulatory response was found inHaCaT cells (Fig. 1) but was not as prominent in SW480 cells (Fig. 2).In HaCaT cells, this apparent stimulatory response is similarlygeneration dependent, G6 showing the highest stimulatory responseand G4 the lowest. The concentrations which elicit the response arealso dependent on generation, G6 at the lowest, G4 the highest. Asimilar trend is apparent in the SW480 cells, although the standarddeviation of the measurements is larger than the generationdependent variations. The results also suggest that the concentrationat which the highest stimulatory response is observed for eachdendrimer is directly correlated with the EC50 concentration found inthe MTT assay and that the toxic/non-toxic transition concentration(or threshold concentration) found in the NR assay correlates wellwith the EC50 concentration found in AB assay (Fig. 3). Such acorrelation is observed for all 3 dendrimer generations suggestingorigin in the underlying response mechanisms and thus the toxicpathway in HaCaT cells was investigated further in this study.

    Lysosensor, Lysotracker and Mitotracker studies

    The lysosomal activity andmitochondrial content was investigatedusing confocal uorescence microscopy (Fig. 4) and was alsoquantied using the plate reader (Fig. 5). At concentrations belowthe EC50 concentrations found in the MTT assay, an increasedlysosomal activity compared to unexposed negative control cellswas observed in HaCaT cells after 24 h exposure to all three dendrimergenerations, but notably this activity was not observedwithin the rst6 h of dendrimer exposure where the lysosomal activity was found to

    amount of ROS generationwas again generation dependant,whereby attimes 1 h, G6 produced the most ROS and G4 the least (Fig. 6b). For

    0.51 1.02 1.16 1.3 2.235 3.17

    % o

    PAMAM G6 concentration in M 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4

    Fig. 5. Quantitative estimation of lysosomal activity in HaCaT cells on PAMAM G6exposure using Lysotracker green a) after 2, 4, 6, and 24 h exposure, b) at differentconcentrations after 24 h exposure.-8-6-4-202468



    1h 1h


    2h 2h

    3h 4h 24h

    3h 4h 24h

    Exposure time

    % o

    f RO












    30 min30min 30min


    Exposure time

    % o

    f RO





    Fig. 6. Reactive oxygen species study after different time point exposure of 1 M

    PAMAM G4, G5 and G6 dendrimers a) in HaCaT cells, b) in SW480 cells.

  • 264 S.P. Mukherjee et al. / Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268SW480 the late increase of ROS was evident from 2 h exposure, whereG4 generated more intracellular ROS than G5 and G6 and reached itsmaximum levels after 4 h exposure, while after 24 h exposure theintracellular ROS falls below the control (Fig. 6b). The confocalmicroscopic study on HaCaT cells conrms that the majority of ROS isgenerated in the mitochondria, while some was found in some vesicle-like sacs (Fig. 7). The maximum amount of ROS was found to beproduced at or below the EC50 concentration found in the MTT assay(Fig. 8).

    Fig. 7. Localization of ROS in the mitochondria of HaCaT cells after 24 h exposure of 1 Mstaining, Bottom Left: overlay Carboxy H2DCFDA and Mitotracker staining, Bottom Right: p











    1 2 3 4 24hours of exposure

    % o

    f RO


    0.5 M1 M1.16 M1.3 M2.23 M3.17 M

    Fig. 8. Reactive oxygen species study in HaCaT cells after 1, 2, 3, 4 and 24 h exposure ofPAMAM G6 dendrimers.Apoptosis study

    The apoptosis study of HaCaT cells exposed to G4, G5 and G6dendrimers suggest that with increasing concentration, the percentageof healthy and early apoptotic cells decreases, whereas the lateapoptotic and dead cell populations increases (Table 2). It is notablethat the decay of the healthy population is monotonic from the lowestconcentrations. The two dyes used in the apoptotic study are Yo-Pro-1and Propidium iodide (PI). Yo-Pro-1 can enter apoptotic cellswhereasPI cannot. Thus Yo-Pro-1 staining indicates both the apoptotic (earlyand late) and the dead or necrotic cells, whereas PI staining onlyindicates the late apoptotic and the dead or necrotic cells (manufac-turer's manual (Fig. 9). In the experiment, more Yo-Pro-1 stainingwas observedat lower concentration of dendrimers whereas with increasingdendrimer concentration PI staining gradually increased. This conrmsthat the cells are entering the apoptotic pathway in this concentrationrange before dying. For PAMAM G6, at lower concentrations, moreapoptotic cells were found in comparison to G5 and G4. At the highestconcentration used in this study, i.e., the EC50 concentration of eachPAMAM found in the NR assay, comparing the apoptotic populationwith the generation of PAMAM, it was found that the healthy and earlyapoptotic cell population decreases with increasing generation ofPAMAM (G4NG5NG6), whereas the late apoptotic and necrotic cellpopulation increases with generation (G4bG5bG6) (Table 2). The EC50concentrations found in the NR assay for each dendrimer also decreaseswith increasing generation of PAMAM (G4NG5NG6). Therefore, withincreasing generation of PAMAM, cells enter apoptosis at a lower dosethan the previous generation.

    PAMAM G6 Top Left: only Carboxy H2DCFDA staining, Top Right: only Mitotrackerhase contrast image.

  • TUNEL assay

    The TUNEL assay data further demonstrates a generation depen-dent toxicity. At a 3.17 M PAMAM exposure of HaCaT cells, G4, G5and G6 showed 4.69%, 25.87% and 89.63% DNA breakage respectively(Fig. 10a). The percentage damage at a xed concentration is seen tobe almost linearly correlated with the number of surface aminogroups per generation, and therefore with the molar concentration ofamino groups (Fig. 10b). It was also found that at the EC50concentration from the NR assay, 23.16 M, 5.75 M and 3.17 M for

    Table 2Apoptosis study in HaCaT cells after 24 h PAMAM G4, G5 and G6 exposures.


    PAMAMconcentrationsin M



    Control 0 85.65 (5.4)G4 3.21 64.88 (5.6)

    16.35 60.44 (6.4)23.16 51.21 (4.3)

    G5 1.07 67.98 (5.1)1.89 63.59 (6.4)5.75 50.58 (5.6)

    G6 1.02 65.46 (5.5)1.3 57.67 (7.6)3.17 43.22 (3.9)

    265S.P. Mukherjee et al. / Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268G4, G5 and G6 respectively, the level of DNA breakage for PAMAM G6remains saturated (89.63%), whereas those for G5 have increased to73.44% and for G4 to 9.36%. (Fig. 10b,c).


    The results of the cytotoxicity study have been previously reported(Mukherjee et al., 2010), whereby the toxicity of the PAMAMdendrimers was found to increase with increasing dendrimergeneration, and therefore number of surface amine groups, for bothHaCaT and SW480 cells and all end points (Table 1). The SW480 cellline, however, displayed a signicantly higher response to dendrimerexposure. Although a signicantly different sensitivity was seen forFig. 9. Apoptosis study in HaCaT cells after 24 h 1.02 M PAMAM G6 exposure by owcytometry using YO-PRO-1 and PI. The gure shows the gating used for the analysis ofhealthy, early apoptotic, late apoptotic and dead cell populations.the three assays employed (NR, AB, MTT) there appears to be asystematic relationship between the responses of the different assays(Fig. 3).

    Notably, a generation dependant stimulatory dose response wasobserved in the NR assay in HaCaT cells (Fig. 1). With increasinggeneration and therefore diameter, zeta potential and number ofsurface amino groups of the dendrimers, the maximum stimulatoryresponse increases in the order G4(16%)bG5(17%)bG6(25%), al-though the dose of the maximum response and the toxic/non-toxictransition dose decreases with increasing generation (Fig. 1). It wasalso observed that the maximum stimulatory activity found in the NRassay correlates well with the EC50 of the MTT assay, whereas thetoxic/non-toxic threshold concentration found in the NR assaycorrelates well with the EC50 found in the AB assay (Fig. 3) for allgenerations. Such a stimulatory response was not as pronounced inthe response of the NR assay in SW480 cells (Fig. 2). Given thesystematic nature of the observed responses, a further examinationmay lead to a greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

    The NR assay is commonly employed as a viability assay and isbased on the uptake of neutral red dye by living cells in its lysosomes(Repetto et al., 2008; Yang et al., 2007). Reduced viability thereforeresults in reduced uptake of the dye. The apparent stimulatoryresponse in the NR assay observed here is therefore an indication ofthe increase of intracellular lysosomes in the presence of low doses ofdendrimers in HaCaT cells.

    A commonly accepted paradigm for nanoparticle cytotoxicity isone of endocytosis, encapsulation in endosomes and then lysosomes,and the increased lysosomal activity observed at low doses couldpoint towards such a mechanism. However, such a mechanism isreported primarily for anionic particles, and cationic particles havebeen shown to localise in mitochondria and produce a cytotoxicresponse via the mitochondrial injury pathway (Xia et al., 2006,2008), generating ROS as a result (Xia et al., 2006; Lee et al., 2009).

    Early apoptotic Late apoptotic Dead

    10.42 (3.6) 3.97 (0.7) 0.09 (0.03)19.97 (2.7) 10.31 (1.9) 4.53 (1.3)15.39 (2.7) 17.05 (3.9) 7.12 (1.9)15.09 (2.1) 22.13 (2.4) 7.99 (1.8)14.78 (3.5) 10.65 (3.7) 5.48 (0.4)14.62 (2.9) 13.56 (2.6) 5.86 (0.9)14.61 (1.1) 25.65 (3.1) 8.48 (1.2)17.17 (3.5) 10.86 (0.9) 4.91 (1.2)15.69 (2.1) 16.01 (2.3) 7.22 (2.5)14.37 (2.6) 28.83 (1.9) 10.38 (2.8)The study of Albertazzi et al. (2010) monitored in real-time theinternalization and intracellular trafcking of PAMAM dendrimers inHeLa immortalised cervical cells using time lapse imaging and co-localisation studies. At short times (1 h), the uorescently labelledparticles were observed to be membrane bound, but completelyinternalisedwithin 4 h, although it was acknowledged that dendrimerinternalization in HeLa cells seems to be slower than in other cell lines(e.g. A549, human adenocarcinomic alveolar basal epithelial cells(Perumal et al., 2008)). Co-localization assays with endocyticstructure markers revealed that both clathrin-mediated endocytosisand macropinocytosis are involved in dendrimer internalization.However, reversible dendrimer-induced permeation of cell mem-branes as reported by Hong et al. (2006) can also be a contributingmechanism.

    Kitchens et al., 2007 reported the endosomal co-localization ofPAMAM G1.5-COOH at the early stages of exposure and subsequentdendrimer trafcking to secondary endosomes and lysosomes.

  • 266 S.P. Mukherjee et al. / Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268a









    of c

    ell p




    healthyDNA breakageHowever, whereas PAMAM G1.5-COOH showed a high degree oflocalisation in early stage lysosomes (58.7%), the G2-NH2 dendrimershowed considerably less (37.3%), although the degree of co-localisation increased with time. Therefore, full generation cationicdendrimers behave differently than their half generation anioniccounterparts. Notably, LAMP-1 was employed to co-localise dendri-mers in the lysosomes, although it has been reported that LAMPproteins are not solely conned to lysosomes but can also be found inendosomes as well as at the cell surface (Gough and Fambrough,1997). The late increase of lysosomal activity found in our study at lowdoses of full generation cationic PAMAM G4, G5 and G6 is consistent




    control G4 G5 G6














    0 50 100 150 200 250 300number of surface amino groups

    % o

    f DNA




    3.17 MEC50 NR













    control G4 G5 G6

    % o

    f cel

    l pop



    healthyDNA breakage

    Fig. 10. DNA breakage study on HaCaT cells after 24 h PAMAM (G4, G5 and G6)exposure a) for 3.17 M exposure of each generation of PAMAM, b) correlation ofDNA breakage after 24 h, 3.17 M PAMAM exposure with number of surface aminogroups. c) upon exposure of EC50 from NR assay of each generation of PAMAMdendrimers (23.16 M, 5.75 M and 3.17 M for G4, G5 and G6 respectively).with the late trafcking of these higher generations of PAMAM to thelysosomes. The differentiation in trafcking mechanisms betweenanionic and cationic dendrimer particles is most likely increased withincreasing generation and surface charge.

    In the studies of Thomas et al., 2009, the results are less clear. After1 h incubation, only 58% of the uorescently labelled G5 dendrimerare co-localised with the lysotracker red dye. It should be noted that itis not clear that the transport mechanisms of dendrimers uores-cently labelled with anionic moieties (FITC in the case of Kitchenset al., 2007 or Alexauor in the case of Thomas et al., 2009) are thesame as their unlabelled counterparts. For example, Gajraj and Ofoli(2000) have reported that extrinsic labelling of uorescein-5-isothiocyanate (FITC) to bovine serum albumin (BSA) in a ratio of2:1 changes its adsorption and diffusion properties.

    In the current study, the lysosomal activity is observed to be lessthan control at the early stages up to 6 h. The absence of lysosomalactivity at this stage suggests that, potentially after early endosomaltransport, the dendrimers are released into the cytosol where they arefree to interact with intracellular membrane structures. PAMAMdendrimers of higher generations are proposed to be good DNA, siRNAtransfection agents, through a mechanism of entry through theendosomal pathway and release into the cytoplasm by the protonsponge hypothesis, thereby avoiding lysosomal degradation (Guillot-Nieckowski et al., 2007; Kukowska-Latallo et al., 1996; Zhou et al.,2006). Such a proton sponge mechanism may however be concen-tration dependent and at low concentration, the dendrimers by enterthe cytosol via other possible ways, e.g., through nano-hole formationin the cell membrane (Hong et al., 2006).

    Although, early ROS are distributed throughout the cytosol, within24 h they are localised in the mitochondria as shown in Fig. 7. This isconsistent with the observation by Lee et al., 2009, of the co-localisation of dendrimers in mitochondria of human lung cells (WI-26 VA4) after 16 h exposure. Subsequent mirochondrial rupture canresult in the late increase in lysosomal activity and trafcking ofdendrimers in these vesicles.

    The results reported here are therefore consistent with a pathwayof early endosomal transport of PAMAM dendrimers into the cytosol(Kitchens et al., 2007) or through nano-hole formation in the cellmembrane (Hong et al., 2006), followed by localisation in themitochondria (Lee et al., 2009) leading to ROS production anddisruption of the mitochondrial electron transduction chain, andadditional O2 production (Donaldson et al., 2005) resulting inoxidative stress, and apoptosis and DNA damage, as illustratedschematically in Fig. 11. Indeed, the cytotoxicity data (Mukherjeeet al., 2010) demonstrated the MTT assay to be the most sensitiveassay. ROS levels generated are dependent on the dendrimergeneration, as is the nal toxic response.

    The intracellular ROS generation study has suggested that inHaCaT cells, ROS is generated in a biphasic way upon PAMAMexposure. Maximum ROS was generated in the rst few hours ofPAMAM exposure and the time of maximum initial ROS was alsogeneration dependant. PAMAM G6 induces maximum ROS after 1 hexposure, G5 after 2 h exposure and G4 after 3 h of exposure. Afterthis period, the levels of intracellular ROS were gradually decreased,but a late ROS generation was observed after 24 h of exposure and theamount of ROS is again generation dependant, whereby PAMAM G6generates the maximum and G4 the least (Fig. 6).

    In SW480 cells, this biphasic ROS generationwas also observed butnot as distinctly as in HaCaT cells (Fig. 6b). In the rst hour ofexposure, the intracellular ROS increased and then reduced after oneand half hours of exposure. The delayed ROS production began after2 h exposure and reached a maximum after 4 h exposure. After 24 hexposure, the intracellular ROS in SW480 cells was found to be belowthe unexposed controls. This difference in ROS generation in thesetwo cell lines and the higher sensitivity of SW480 cells than HaCaT

    cells from the standard cytotoxicity assays can be linked to the

  • 267S.P. Mukherjee et al. / Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268signicant difference in the natural antioxidant levels (e.g., GSH) inthese two cell lines (Snow et al., 2005; Nakagawa et al., 2002).

    It is reported that higher constituent levels of cellular antioxidants,redox enzymes etc. help the cell to protect itself from the oxidativestress caused by an external agent, e.g., arsenic (Snow et al., 2005).The average activities of three important intracellular redox agents,glutathione (GSH), glutathione-S-transferase, and glutathione reduc-tase are approximately three times higher in WI38 broblast cellsthan in HaCaT cells and therefore upon 24 h exposure to arsenicHaCaT cells are 50% more susceptible to cell death than WI38 cells(Snow et al., 2005). The natural intracellular glutathione (GSH) levelof HaCaT cells is 7300 nmol/mg protein (Snow et al., 2005) whereasthat of SW480 cells is ~40 nmol/mg protein (Nakagawa et al., 2002).The higher level of antioxidants in HaCaT cells is therefore consistentwith their greater tolerance to oxidative stress and thus lower toxicresponse.

    The cytotoxicity study shows the MTT assay to be the mostsensitive assay (Mukherjee et al., 2010). This suggests that PAMAMdendrimers cause mitochondrial toxicity (Freimoser et al., 1999)leading to mitochondrial metabolic death and oxidative stress, on atime scale of 14 h. The AB assay is less sensitive, indicating that thebasic cellular metabolism and proliferative capacity are affected to alesser degree than the mitochondria (O'Brien et al., 2000). The NRassay results indicate disruption of the lysosomal membrane integrity(Harding et al., 2004) on longer timescales in both the cell lines at arelatively higher concentration of the nanoparticles.

    The highest stimulatory concentration wheremaximum lysosomalactivity was found correlates directly to the EC50 concentration found

    Fig. 11. Schematic representation of PAMAM cytotoxicitin the MTT assay, indicating that at these concentrations themitochondrial metabolism has been dramatically affected (Fig. 3).The lysotracker and lysosensor study in HaCaT cells showed that theincrease in lysosomal activity occurs after 24 h.

    HaCaT cells, in the presence of ROS, increase the intracellularconcentration of Cu, Zn-superoxide dismutase in the rst stage ofexposure to reduce ROS and then later Mn-superoxide dismutase tocontinue the cellular resistance (Sasaki et al., 1997; Sasaki et al.,2000). Among different ROS scavengers, the glutathione (GSH)dependant system is of great importance (Mates, 2000). The notableincrease in lysosomal activity found in HaCaT cells but not in SW480cells may point towards higher resistance to the toxicant over a higherdose range in HaCaT cells in comparison to SW480 cells.

    With increasing generation of PAMAM dendrimer, more intra-cellular ROS are generated which results in damage to themitochondrial metabolism, registered by the MTT assay. Theintracellular antioxidants at this time neutralize the initial ROSgenerated by PAMAM to some extent, depending on the cell typeand the natural antioxidant levels, and as a result the intracellularROS levels decrease. After prolonged exposure however, thiscellular defence mechanism is impaired and the subsequent risein ROS levels results in death of the cell. As a regular cellulardefensive mechanism, lysosomes then come into play to digest andneutralize the dendrimers and their effects and as a result anincrease in lysosomal activity is observed at 24 h exposure (Fig. 5).It is furthermore conceivable that the increased lysosomal activitycan be an indication of mitophagy, whereby mitochondria aredegraded by lysosomes to eliminate damaged organelles (Maiuri et

    y (abbreviations: LP Long Pass, BP Band Pass).

  • pplied Pharmacology 248 (2010) 259268al., 2007; Shelburne and Trump, 1973). With increasing PAMAMconcentration however, the lysosomal membrane integrity isdisrupted, initiating further apoptosis, DNA damage and cellulardeath. At low concentrations, DNA damage is approximatelylinearly dependent on number of surface amine groups perdendrimer and thus with molar concentration of NH2, (Fig. 10b).However, with increasing concentration, the levels per generationtend towards saturation at ~90%. Notably, at the EC50 value of NR,the percentage DNA damage levels are not equal, conrming that inthese systems, NR is an indicator of lysosomal activity but notviability, directly.

    The apparent systematic relationship between the cytotoxicityassays indicates that at a concentration when 50% of the mitochon-drial metabolism (EC50 fromMTT assay) has been affected by PAMAMexposure, the lysosomal activity increases to the maximum toneutralize the effect, and as a result the stimulatory activity in theNR assay is maximum at that concentration. At a concentration whenthe basic cellular metabolism was affected by 50% (EC50 from ABassay), the lysosomal activity and therefore the cellular defencemechanism is already signicantly compromised and the lysosomalactivity has reduced to the levels of the control. With further increasein PAMAM concentration, the lysososmal activity is further reducedwhich may indicate further damage to the lysosomal membrane andits integrity leading to further increase in apoptosis rates and cellulardeath.


    The toxic pathway of the cationic PAMAMdendrimers is conrmedas localisation in the mitochondria leading to ROS production andresulting in oxidative stress, apoptosis and DNA damage. Beginningwith ROS production, all processes are systematically generationdependent, further illustrating the importance of such structurallycontrolled and dened species for the study of the underlying toxicmechanisms. The differences observed between the different cyto-toxicity assays can be understood in terms of the effect of thesequence of events on the cellularmechanisms. It is suggested that thedifferences in the responses of the two cell lines are based ondifferences in intrinsic levels of antioxidants, the rst line of defenceagainst the toxic pathway.


    This work was conducted under the framework of the INSPIREprogramme, funded by the Irish Government's Programme forResearch in Third Level Institutions, Cycle 4, National Develop-ment Plan 20072013, supported by the European Union Struc-tural Fund.


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    Mechanistic studies of in vitro cytotoxicity of poly(amidoamine) dendrimers in mammalian cellsIntroductionMaterials and methodsOutline placeholderTest materialsReagentsCell culturePreparation of dendrimer solutionsAlamar Blue (AB) and Neutral Red (NR) assaysMTT (3-[4,5-Dimethylthiazol-2-yl]-2,5-diphenyl tetrazolium bromide) assayLysosensor, Lysotracker and Mitotracker studiesIntracellular reactive oxygen species studyApoptosis studyTUNEL assay (terminal dUTP nick-end labelling assay)Statistics

    ResultsAB, NR, and MTT assaysLysosensor, Lysotracker and Mitotracker studiesIntracellular reactive oxygen species studyApoptosis studyTUNEL assay



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