BackgroundThe terms agglomerates and aggregates are frequently used in the regulatory definition(s) of nanomaterials (NMs) and hence attract attention in view of their potential influence on health effects. However, the influence of nanoparticle (NP) agglomeration and aggregation on toxicity is poorly understood although it is strongly believed that smaller the size of the NPs greater the toxicity. A toxicologically relevant definition of NMs is therefore not yet available, which affects not only the risk assessment process but also hinders the regulation of nano-products. In this study, we assessed the influence of NP agglomeration on their toxicity/biological responses in vitro and in vivo.ResultsWe tested two TiO2 NPs with different primary sizes (17 and 117 nm) and prepared ad-hoc suspensions composed of small or large agglomerates with similar dispersion medium composition. For in vitro testing, human bronchial epithelial (HBE), colon epithelial (Caco2) and monocytic (THP-1) cell lines were exposed to these suspensions for 24 h and endpoints such as cytotoxicity, total glutathione, epithelial barrier integrity, inflammatory mediators and DNA damage were measured. Large agglomerates of 17 nm TiO2 induced stronger responses than small agglomerates for glutathione depletion, IL-8 and IL-1β increase, and DNA damage in THP-1, while no effect of agglomeration was observed with 117 nm TiO2.In vivo, C57BL/6JRj mice were exposed via oropharyngeal aspiration or oral gavage to TiO2 suspensions and, after 3 days, biological parameters including cytotoxicity, inflammatory cell recruitment, DNA damage and biopersistence were measured. Mainly, we observed that large agglomerates of 117 nm TiO2 induced higher pulmonary responses in aspirated mice and blood DNA damage in gavaged mice compared to small agglomerates.ConclusionAgglomeration of TiO2 NPs influences their toxicity/biological responses and, large agglomerates do not appear less active than small agglomerates. This study provides a deeper insight on the toxicological relevance of NP agglomerates and contributes to the establishment of a toxicologically relevant definition for NMs.