A 3D In Vitro Model of the Human Airway Epithelium Exposed to Tritiated Water: Dosimetric Estimate and Cytotoxic Effects

Radiat Res. 2021 Mar 1;195(3):265-274. doi: 10.1667/RADE-20-00208.1.


Tritium has been receiving worldwide attention, particularly because of its production and use in existing fission reactors and future nuclear fusion technologies, leading to an increased risk of release in the environment. Linking human health effects to low-dose tritium exposures presents a challenge for many reasons. Among these: biological effects strongly depend on the speciation of tritiated products and exposure pathway; large dosimetric uncertainties may exist; measurements using in vitro cell cultures generally lack a description of effects at the tissue level, while large-scale animal studies might be ethically questionable and too highly demanding in terms of resources. In this context, three-dimensional models of the human airway epithelium are a powerful tool to investigate potential toxicity induced upon inhalation of radioactive products in controlled physiological conditions. In this study we exposed such a model to tritiated water (HTO) for 24 h, with a range of activity levels (up to ∼33 kBq µl-1 cm-2). After the exposures, we measured cell viability, integrity of epithelial layer and pro-inflammatory response at different post-exposure time-points. We also quantified tritium absorption and performed dosimetric estimates considering HTO passage through the epithelial layer, leading to reconstructed upper limits for the dose to the tissue of less than 50 cGy cumulative dose for the highest activity. Upon exposure to the highest activity, cell viability was not decreased; however, we observed a small effect on epithelial integrity and an inflammatory response persisting after seven days. These results represent a reference condition and will guide future experiments using human airway epithelium to investigate the effects of other peculiar tritiated products.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epithelium / pathology
  • Epithelium / radiation effects*
  • Humans
  • Lung / pathology
  • Lung / radiation effects*
  • Mice
  • Radiometry
  • Tritium / adverse effects*
  • Water / chemistry*


  • Water
  • Tritium