Tryptophan carbon dots and their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier

Keenan J. Mintz, Guillaume Mercado, Yiqun Zhou, Yiwen Ji, Sajini D. Hettiarachchi, Piumi Y. Liyanage, Raja R. Pandey, Charles C. Chusuei, Julia Dallman, Roger M. Leblanc

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Drug traversal across the blood-brain barrier has come under increasing scrutiny recently, particularly concerning the treatment of sicknesses, such as brain cancer and Alzheimer's disease. Most therapies and medicines are limited due to their inability to cross this barrier, reducing treatment options for maladies affecting the brain. Carbon dots show promise as drug carriers, but they experience the same limitations regarding crossing the blood-brain barrier as many small molecules do. If carbon dots can be prepared from a precursor that can cross the blood-brain barrier, there is a chance that the remaining original precursor molecule can attach to the carbon dot surface and lead the system into the brain. Herein, tryptophan carbon dots were synthesized with the strategy of using tryptophan as an amino acid for crossing the blood-brain barrier via LAT1 transporter-mediated endocytosis. Two types of carbon dots were synthesized using tryptophan and two different nitrogen dopants: urea and 1,2-ethylenediamine. Carbon dots made using these precursors show excitation wavelength-dependent emission, low toxicity, and have been observed inside the central nervous system of zebrafish (Danio rerio). The proposed mechanism for these carbon dots abilities to cross the blood-brain barrier concerns residual tryptophan molecules which attach to the carbon dots surface, enabling them to be recognized by the LAT1 transporter. The role of carbon dots for transport open promising avenues for drug delivery and imaging in the brain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)488-493
Number of pages6
JournalColloids and Surfaces B: Biointerfaces
StatePublished - Apr 1 2019


  • Blood-brain barrier
  • Carbon dots
  • Drug delivery
  • Zebrafish

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Surfaces and Interfaces
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Colloid and Surface Chemistry


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