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Open Access Research article

Tungsten carbide cobalt nanoparticles exert hypoxia-like effects on the gene expression level in human keratinocytes

Wibke Busch1*, Dana Kühnel1, Kristin Schirmer2 and Stefan Scholz1

Author Affiliations

1 UFZ - Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig, Department of Bioanalytical Ecotoxicology, Permoserstr. 15, 04318 Leipzig, Germany

2 Eawag, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, 8600 Dübendorf, Switzerland and ETH Zürich, Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics, 8092 Zürich, Switzerland

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BMC Genomics 2010, 11:65  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-11-65

Published: 27 January 2010



Tungsten carbide (WC) and tungsten carbide cobalt (WC-Co) nanoparticles are of occupational health relevance because of the increasing usage in hard metal industries. Earlier studies showed an enhanced toxic potential for WC-Co compared to WC or cobalt ions alone. Therefore, we investigated the impact of these particles, compared to cobalt ions applied as CoCl2, on the global gene expression level in human keratinocytes (HaCaT) in vitro.


WC nanoparticles exerted very little effects on the transcriptomic level after 3 hours and 3 days of exposure. In contrast, WC-Co nanoparticles caused significant transcriptional changes that were similar to those provoked by CoCl2. However, CoCl2 exerted even more pronounced changes in the transcription patterns. Gene set enrichment analyses revealed that the differentially expressed genes were related to hypoxia response, carbohydrate metabolism, endocrine pathways, and targets of several transcription factors. The role of the transcription factor HIF1 (hypoxia inducible factor 1) is particularly highlighted and aspects of downstream events as well as the role of other transcription factors related to cobalt toxicity are considered.


This study provides extensive data useful for the understanding of nanoparticle and cobalt toxicity. It shows that WC nanoparticles caused low transcriptional responses while WC-Co nanoparticles are able to exert responses similar to that of free cobalt ions, particularly the induction of hypoxia-like effects via interactions with HIF1α in human keratinocytes. However, the enhanced toxicity of WC-Co particles compared to CoCl2 could not be explained by differences in gene transcription.