The use of controlled electric fields for introducing different molecules and drugs into the cells is a well established technique that has clinical applications in drug delivery, gene therapy, vaccination and electro-chemotherapy. Currently the main limitation to the application of this technique in clinical practice is the requirement for high voltages, which can cause significant tissue damage at the target site. The predicted ability of BNNTs to lower the strength of the electric fields required for cell electroporation is useful to address this limitation.

When cells are incubated within a BNNT solution, the BNNTs interact with cells and their membrane. By applying a static electric field, an enhancement of the electrical field occurs at the surface of the BNNT. This behaviour can be explained by considering the dielectric properties of BNNTs, as supported by finite element modeling analysis.

Experimental evidence demonstrates that, in the presence of BNNTs, small molecules could be translocated across the cell membrane of human neuroblastoma cells by applying a very-low electrical field (40–60 V/cm). In addition, cells treated with BNNT-mediated electroporation maintain a high level of viability, metabolism and proliferation, as demonstrated by specific assays.

BNNTs thus act as small probes that are able to enhance cell permeabilization and they can be exploited to overcome the limit predicted by the Neumann theory, describing the minimum electric field value required for reversible cell electropermeabilization.

The researchers presented their work in Nanotechnology.