The cornea is a potential route of exposure and drug administration for nanoparticles. In this work, we use noninvasive two-photon microscopic imaging to study the distribution and permeability pathway of CdSe/ZnS core/shell quantum dots (QDs) capped with three different functional groups through the cornea. With no additional staining, the two-photon image clearly discloses that fluorescent QDs penetrate and reside within the interlamellar space of second harmonic generating collagenous stroma when the corneal epithelium barrier is injured. An in vitro cytotoxicity test using bovine corneal stromal cells incubated individually with all three kinds of QDs indicates that the cell viability decreases significantly as the QD concentration and incubation period increased. The results also show that the specific QDs influence corneal stromal cell viability up to a significant magnitude of 50% under a relatively low concentration (5-20 nM) and short exposure period (24-48 h). Furthermore, two-photon imaging shows that QDs can be retained within the cornea up to 26 days in an in vivo mouse model. On the basis of our in vivo and in vitro data, we conclude that QDs can penetrate and be retained within cornea long enough to cause consequential cytotoxicity, under the circumstance in which the corneal epithelium barrier is injured. Since corneal abrasion is quite a common situation in daily life, our work raises public attention to the potential risk of eye exposure to nanoparticles.
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