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Adv Drug Deliv Rev. 2013 Dec;65(15):2078-86. doi: 10.1016/j.addr.2013.07.014. Epub 2013 Jul 27.

Pulmonary toxicity of carbon nanotubes and asbestos - similarities and differences.

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MRC/University of Edinburgh, Centre for Inflammation Research, Queen's Medical Research Institute, 47 Little France Crescent, Edinburgh EH16 4TJ, United Kingdom. Electronic address:


Carbon nanotubes are a valuable industrial product but there is potential for human pulmonary exposure during production and their fibrous shape raises the possibility that they may have effects like asbestos, which caused a worldwide pandemic of disease in the20th century that continues into present. CNT may exist as fibres or as more compact particles and the asbestos-type hazard only pertains to the fibrous forms of CNT. Exposure to asbestos causes asbestosis, bronchogenic carcinoma, mesothelioma, pleural fibrosis and pleural plaques indicating that both the lungs and the pleura are targets. The fibre pathogenicity paradigm was developed in the 1970s-80s and has a robust structure/toxicity relationship that enables the prediction of the pathogenicity of fibres depending on their length, thickness and biopersistence. Fibres that are sufficiently long and biopersistent and that deposit in the lungs can cause oxidative stress and inflammation. They may also translocate to the pleura where they can be retained depending on their length, and where they cause inflammation and oxidative stress in the pleural tissues. These pathobiological processes culminate in pathologic change - fibroplasia and neoplasia in the lungs and the pleura. There may also be direct genotoxic effects of fibres on epithelial cells and mesothelium, contributing to neoplasia. CNT show some of the properties of asbestos and other types of fibre in producing these types of effects and more research is needed. In terms of the molecular pathways involved in the interaction of long biopersistent fibres with target tissue the events leading to mesothelioma have been a particular area of interest. A variety of kinase pathways important in proliferation are activated by asbestos leading to pre-malignant states and investigations are under way to determine whether fibrous CNT also affects these molecular pathways. Current research suggests that fibrous CNT can elicit effects similar to asbestos but more research is needed to determine whether they, or other nanofibres, can cause fibrosis and cancer in the long term.


Asbestos; Biopersistence; Carbon nanotubes; Diameter; Fibres; Length; Lungs; Mesothelioma; Nanofibres; Pleura

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