BACKGROUNDRecent advances in nanoparticle design have generated new possibilities for nano-biotechnology and nano-medicine. Here we used cryo-soft X-ray tomography (cryo-SXT) to collect comprehensive three-dimensional (3D) data to characterise the interaction of superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (SPION) with a breast cancer cell line.RESULTSWe incubated MCF-7 (a human breast cancer cell line) from 0 to 24 h with SPION (15 nm average diameter, coated with dimercaptosuccinic acid), a system that has been studied previously using various microscopy and bulk techniques. This system facilitates the validation and contextualization of the new 3D data acquired using the cryo-SXT-based approach. After vitrification, samples tested by correlative cryo-epifluorescent microscopy showed SPION accumulation in acidic vesicles related to the endocytic pathway. Microscopy grids bearing MCF-7 cells were then analysed by cryo-SXT to generate whole cell volume 3D maps. Cryo-SXT is an emerging technique that benefits from high X-ray penetration into the biological material to image close-to-native vitrified cells at nanometric resolution with no chemical fixation or staining agents. This unique possibility of obtaining 3D information from whole cells allows quantitative statistical analysis of SPION-containing vesicle (SCV) accumulation inside cells, including vesicle number and size, distances between vesicles, and their distance from the nucleus.CONCLUSIONSCorrelation between fluorescent microscopy, cryo-SXT and transmission electron microscopy allowed us to identify SCV and to generate 3D data for statistical analysis of SPION:cell interaction. This study supports continuous transfer of the internalized SPION from the plasma membrane to an accumulation area near the cell nucleus. Statistical analysis showed SCV increase in number and size concomitant with longer incubation times, and therefore an increase in their accumulated volume within the cell. This cumulative effect expands the accumulation area and cell organelles such as mitochondria are consequently displaced to the periphery. Our 3D cryo-SXT approach demonstrates that a comprehensive quantitative description of SPION:cell interaction is possible, which will serve as a basis for metal-based nanoparticle design and for selection of those best suited for hyperthermia treatment, drug delivery and image diagnosis in nanobiomedicine.