BACKGROUND: The regulatory definition(s) of nanomaterials (NMs) frequently uses the term 'agglomerates and aggregates' (AA) despite the paucity of evidence that AA are significantly relevant from a nanotoxicological perspective. This knowledge gap greatly affects the safety assessment and regulation of NMs, such as synthetic amorphous silica (SAS). SAS is used in a large panel of industrial applications. They are primarily produced as nano-sized particles (1-100 nm in diameter) and considered safe as they form large aggregates (> 100 nm) during the production process. So far, it is indeed believed that large aggregates represent a weaker hazard compared to their nano counterpart. Thus, we assessed the impact of SAS aggregation on in vitro cytotoxicity/biological activity to address the toxicological relevance of aggregates of different sizes. RESULTS: We used a precipitated SAS dispersed by different methods, generating 4 ad-hoc suspensions with different aggregate size distributions. Their effect on cell metabolic activity, cell viability, epithelial barrier integrity, total glutathione content and, IL-8 and IL-6 secretion were investigated after 24 h exposure in human bronchial epithelial (HBE), colon epithelial (Caco2) and monocytic cells (THP-1). We observed that the de-aggregated suspension (DE-AGGR), predominantly composed of nano-sized aggregates, induced stronger effects in all the cell lines than the aggregated suspension (AGGR). We then compared DE-AGGR with 2 suspensions fractionated from AGGR: the precipitated fraction (PREC) and the supernatant fraction (SuperN). Very large aggregates in PREC were found to be the least cytotoxic/biologically active compared to other suspensions. SuperN, which contains aggregates larger in size (> 100 nm) than in DE-AGGR but smaller than PREC, exhibited similar activity as DE-AGGR. CONCLUSION: Overall, aggregation resulted in reduced toxicological activity of SAS. However, when comparing aggregates of different sizes, it appeared that aggregates > 100 nm were not necessarily less cytotoxic than their nano-sized counterparts. This study suggests that aggregates of SAS are toxicologically relevant for the definition of NMs.
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