Single-wall carbon nanohorns (SWCNHs), which have multitudes of horn interstices, an extensive surface area, and a spherical aggregate structure, offer many advantages over other carbon nanomaterials being used as a drug nanovector. The previous studies on the interaction between SWCNHs and cells have mostly emphasized on cellular uptake and intracellular trafficking, but seldom on epithelial cells. Polar epithelium as a typical biological barrier constitutes the prime obstacle for the transport of therapeutic agents to target site. This work tried to explore the permeability of SWCNHs through polar epithelium and their abilities to modulate transcellular transport, and evaluate the potential of SWCNHs in drug delivery. Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK) cell monolayer was used as a polar epithelial cell model, and as-grown SWCNHs, together with oxidized and fluorescein isothiocyanate-conjugated bovine serum albumin-labeled forms, were constructed and comprehensively investigated in vitro and in vivo. Various methods such as transmission electron microscopy and confocal imaging were used to visualize their intracellular uptake and localization, as well as to investigate the potential transcytotic process. The related mechanism was explored by specific inhibitors. Additionally, fast multispectral optoacoustic tomography imaging was used for monitoring the distribution and transport process of SWCNHs in vivo after oral administration in nude mice, as an evidence for their interaction with the intestinal epithelium. The results showed that SWCNHs had a strong bioadhesion property, and parts of them could be uptaken and transcytosed across the MDCK monolayer. Multiple mechanisms were involved in the uptake and transcytosis of SWCNHs with varying degrees. After oral administration, oxidized SWCNHs were distributed in the gastrointestinal tract and retained in the intestine for up to 36 h probably due to their surface adhesion and endocytosis into the intestinal epithelium. Overall, this comprehensive investigation demonstrated that SWCNHs can serve as a promising nanovector that can cross the barrier of polar epithelial cells and deliver drugs effectively.

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