Nanoparticles & cell membranes: history of a (science) fiction?

One of the reason scientists, journalists and the general public are excited about nanoparticles is their supposed ability to cross biological barriers, including, the cell membrane. This could do wonders for drug delivery by bringing active molecules to the interior of the cell where they could interact with key components of the cell machinery to restore function or kill cancer cells. On the opposite side of the coin, if nanoparticles can do this, then there are enormous implications in terms of their potential toxicity and it is very urgent to investigate. But is it true? What is the evidence? How did this idea come into the scientific literature in the first place? I have been intrigued by this question for some time. It is the publication of an article about stripy nanoparticles magically crossing the cell membrane that led me to engage in what became the stripy nanoparticles controversy. It is this same vexing question that led me to question Merck/Mirkin claims about smartflare/nanoflare/stickyflare.

In the introduction of our article “The spherical nucleic acids mRNA detection paradox“, we describe the long history of the use of gold nanoparticles (“gold colloids”) in cell biology and conclude that

…, more than five decades of work has clearly established that nanoparticles enter cells by endocytotic mechanisms that result in their entrapment inside intracellular vesicles unless those nanoparticles are biological in nature and have acquired through evolution, advanced molecular tools which enable them to escape.

In the paragraph that followed, we were trying to make the point, in part using citation data of one of these 1950s pioneering articles, that this solid knowledge has been ignored in some of the thousands of recent articles on interactions of nanoparticles with membranes and cells that have appeared in the past 15 years. In his review of the first version of our article, Steve Royle criticises that latter paragraph (in his word, a “very minor” point):

I’m not a big fan of using number of Web of Science search results as an argument (Introduction). The number of papers on Gold Nanoparticles may be increasing since 2007, but then so are the number of papers on anything. It needs to be normalised to be meaningful. It’s also a shame that only 5 papers have cited Harford et al., but it’s an old paper, maybe people are citing reviews that cover this paper instead?

This is a fair point. While normalisation as well as more detailed and systematic searches might shed some light, it is rather difficult to quantify an absence of citation. Instead, I have tried to discover where the idea that nanoparticles can diffuse through membranes comes from. Here are my prime suspects (but I would be more than happy to update this post to better reflect the history of science and ideas so please leave comment, tweet, email), Andre Nel and colleagues, in Science, 3rd of February 2006, “Toxic Potential of Materials at the Nanolevel” :

“ Moreover, some nanoparticles readily travel throughout the body, deposit in target organs, penetrate cell membranes, lodge in mitochondria, and may trigger injurious responses.”

This claim is not supported by a reference, but later in the article Nel et al refer to an earlier paper entitled “Ultrafine particles cross cellular membranes by nonphagocytic mechanisms in lungs and in cultured cells” by Marianne Geiser and colleagues. These two papers, Nel et al, and, Geiser et al, have been cited respectively 5000 times and 850 times according to PubMed.

As early as 2007, Shayla Banerji and Mark Hayes had already challenged this idea of transport of nanoparticles across membranes in an elegant experimental and theoretical study which was a direct response to the two papers cited above “Examination of Nonendocytotic Bulk Transport of Nanoparticles Across Phospholipid Membranes“:

In accordance with these health concerns, Nel et al. have described some phenomena that can only potentiate fear of the negative health risks associated with nanotechnology.


Non-endocytotic transmembrane transport of large macromolecules is a significant exception to what is presently known about cell membrane permeability. Most early studies show that lipid bilayers are essentially impenetrable by molecules larger than water under physiological conditions: transport of most molecules across cell membranes is specifically cell-mediated by endocytosis.34 Endocytosis, unlike proposed passive, non-endocytotic transport, is an active cell-mediated process by which a substance gains entry into a cell. Specifically, a cell’s plasma membrane continuously invaginates to form vesicles around materials that originated outside the membrane: as the invagination continuously folds inward, the cell membrane constituents simultaneously reorganize in such a way that the material being transported into the cell is completely enclosed in a lipid bilayer, forming an endosome.35,36


The results suggest that a diffusive process of transport is not likely.

Figure 8 is particularly telling (!).


The article by Shayla Banerji and Mark Hayes has been cited 44 times.




  1. nice… sometimes chain referencing makes a suggestion appear as strong solid knowledge… and once is on the papers… it is annoying to take it off… think how young scientist believe on what they read, and as we become more interdisciplinary, the risk of being less specialist make referencing a critical thing…


  2. This is really a good point and the question is still open (I am referring to the scientific point of NPs interacting with cell membrane).
    Particularly, the idea of transcytosis (or passage across a biological barriers) is already taken as something that is definitely happening based on the fact that scientist find “something” on the other side of the cell barrier. The question on how NPs enter the cells (active mechanisms or passive diffusion, or both of them) is still matter of debate, as well as for barrier crossing (transcellular pathways, and, in case of transcytosis, clathrin or caveolin mediated?).
    I agree with Victor. The risk is that we assume something is real because the paper that says that is highly cited (without carefully checking the proper references). Anyway, we can still change this doing a step backward and going back to the lab trying to demonstrate “the real route NPs use to enter and travel through cell-barriers) 🙂


    1. Anon Feb 6, at 3:49, please provide a link that works. No idea what “our symposium” is since the comment is not signed and the link does not work.


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