Assessing Nanotech Risk

Imaging particle distribution in the lungs. John Links / JHU
Imaging particle distribution in the lungs. Credit: John Links / JHU

From drug delivery tools to environmental sensors to “super“ cleaners, the very small products resulting from nanotechnology are demonstrating big potential to improve the quality of life. Researchers at the Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) are involved in both developing new nanotechnologies and analyzing their potential risks.

At the nanoscale, a material’s physical and chemical properties – such as strength, optical absorption, and electrical conductivity – change. These very small materials with different properties are enabling new technologies like nano-sized capsules that can deliver medicine directly to damaged cells in the body. But the ability to alter a material’s properties raises questions about the potential for nanotechnology to have unintended environmental and health effects, especially because the implications of these changed properties are not yet fully understood.

“At present, there is a lack of direct toxicological data for materials at the nanoscale,“ says Jonathan Links, environmental health scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and INBT executive committee member. “Much of the concern about potential health and environmental issues is based on extrapolation from quartz, asbestos, and particulate air pollution toxicology studies, and from general medical pharmacology considerations. In addition to understanding the effects of nanomaterials themselves, we need to understand the potentially altered effects of products based on those nanomaterials, and any risks arising from the production process.“

Environmental health scientist Alison Geyh agrees. “We just don’t understand the impacts of nanoparticles inside the body and in the environment. There is a need for integration between those developing the technology and those studying potential human and environmental impact.“

Links and others believe Johns Hopkins is uniquely positioned to lead a research and training effort in the environmental, occupational, and public health effects of nanotechnology products.

“The wealth of expertise in medicine, pharmacology, and public health added to the scientific and engineering prowess at Hopkins already focused on nanotechnology can yield collaborative efforts in the emerging area of nanotech toxicology and risk assessment,“ he says.

After soliciting and reviewing proposals, INBT recently awarded a total of $100,000 in seed funding, or $25,000 for each project, to four multi-disciplinary research teams at Johns Hopkins. The awards will jumpstart new investigations into health and environmental issues related to nanotechnology.

The projects and principal investigators are:

  • Influence of surface chemistry on the fate and environmental impact of carbon nanotubes in aquatic environments – William P. Ball (Geography and Environmental Engineering) and Howard Fairbrother (Chemistry)
  • Generation of dissolved toxic species through reaction of manganese (III, IV) (hydr)oxide nanoparticles with biofluids – Joe Bressler (Kennedy Krieger Institute), Alan Stone (Geography and Environmental Engineering), and David Veblen (Earth and Planetary Sciences)
  • Nanomaterials as transporters of toxic agents into cell systems – Ellen K. Silbergeld (Environmental Health Sciences) and Howard E. Katz (Materials Science and Engineering)
  • Exposure assessment: Probing size dependent effects on the concentration and speciation of transition metals in particulate matter – Alison Geyh (Environmental Health Sciences) and Howard Fairbrother (Chemistry)

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