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Agglomeration and sedimentation of nanoparticles (NPs) within biological solutions is a major limitation in their use in many downstream applications. It has been proposed that serum proteins associate with the NP surface to form a protein corona that limits agglomeration and sedimentation. Here, we investigate the effect of fetal bovine serum (FBS) proteins on the dispersion stability, dosimetry, and NP-induced cytotoxicity of cationic zinc oxide nanoparticles (nZnO) synthesized via forced hydrolysis with a core size of 10 nm. Two different in vitro cell culture models, suspension and adherent, were evaluated by comparing a phosphate buffered saline (PBS) nZnO dispersion (nZnO/PBS) and an FBS-stabilized PBS nZnO dispersion (nZnO – FBS/PBS). Surface interactions of FBS on nZnO were analyzed via spectroscopic and optical techniques. Fourier transformed infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) confirmed the adsorption of negatively charged protein components on the cationic nZnO surface through the disappearance of surfaced-adsorbed carboxyl functional groups and the subsequent detection of vibrational modes associated with the protein backbone of FBS-associated proteins. Further confirmation of these interactions was noted in the isoelectric point shift of the nZnO from the characteristic pH of 9.5 to a pH of 6.1.In nZnO – FBS/PBS dispersions, the FBS reduced agglomeration and sedimentation behaviors to impart long-term improvements (>24 h) to the nZnO dispersion stability. Furthermore, mathematical dosimetry models indicate that nZnO – FBS/PBS dispersions had consistent NP deposition patterns over time unlike unstable nZnO/PBS dispersions. In suspension cell models, the stable nZnO – FBS/PBS dispersion resulted in a ~33 % increase in the NP-induced cytotoxicity for both Jurkat leukemic and Hut-78 lymphoma cancer cells. In contrast, the nZnO – FBS/PBS dispersion resulted in 49 and 71 % reductions in the cytotoxicity observed towards the adherent breast (T-47D) and prostate (LNCaP) cancer cell lines, respectively. Presence of FBS in the NP dispersions also increased the reactive oxygen species generation. These observations indicate that the improved dispersion stability leads to increased NP bioavailability for suspension cell models and reduced NP sedimentation onto adherent cell layers resulting in more accurate in vitro toxicity assessments.

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This document was originally published in Nanoscale Research Letters by Springer. This work is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Details regarding the use of this work can be found at: The final publication is available at doi: