Heterogeneous ligand-nanoparticle distributions: A major obstacle to scientific understanding and commercial translation

Douglas G. Mullen, Mark M. Banaszak Holl

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58 Citations (Scopus)


Nanoparticles conjugated with functional ligands are expected to have a major impact in medicine, photonics, sensing, and nanoarchitecture design. One major obstacle to realizing the promise of these materials, however, is the difficulty in controlling the ligand/nanoparticle ratio. This obstacle can be segmented into three key areas: First, many designs of these systems have failed to account for the true heterogeneity of ligand/nanoparticle ratios that compose each material. Second, studies in the field often use the mean ligand/nanoparticle ratio as the accepted level of characterization of these materials. This measure is insufficient because it does not provide information about the distribution of ligand/nanoparticle species within a sample or the number and relative amount of the different species that compose a material. Without these data, researchers do not have an accurate definition of material composition necessary both to understand the material-property relationships and to monitor the consistency of the material. Third, some synthetic approaches now in use may not produce consistent materials because of their sensitivity to reaction kinetics and to the synthetic history of the nanoparticle.In this Account, we describe recent advances that we have made in under standing the material composition of ligand-nanoparticle systems. Our work has been enabled by a model system using poly(amidoamine) dendrimers and two small molecule ligands. Using reverse phase high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC), we have successfully resolved and quantified the relative amounts and ratios of each ligand/dendrimer combination. This type of information is rare within the field of ligand-nanoparticle materials because most analytical techniques have been unable to identify the components in the distribution.Our experimental data indicate that the actual distribution of ligand-nanoparticle components is much more heterogeneous than is commonly assumed. The mean ligand/nanoparticle ratio that is typically the only information known about a material is insufficient because the mean does not provide information on the diversity of components in the material and often does not describe the most common component (the mode). Additionally, our experimental data has provided examples of material batches with the same mean ligand/nanoparticle ratio and very different distributions. This discrepancy indicates that the mean cannot be used as the sole metric to assess the reproducibility of a system. We further found that distribution profiles can be highly sensitive to the synthetic history of the starting material as well as slight changes in reaction conditions. We have incorporated the lessons from our experimental data into the design of new ligand-nanoparticle systems to provide improved control over these ratios.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1135-1145
Number of pages11
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2011
Externally publishedYes

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