CORVALLIS, Ore. — The development of and use of nanotechnology in everything from cosmetics to medical devices is expected to grow significantly in the next several years, yet little has been done to determine whether manufactured nanoparticles pose a risk to human health or the environment.
In response to this lack of information, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded Oregon State University a three-year, $400,000 grant to develop a system capable of rapidly assessing the biological interactions of manmade nanomaterials.
Manufactured nanoparticles — any particle smaller than .25 millionths of an inch, or 1,000 times smaller than a human hair — are specifically designed in laboratories to have commercially useful properties, and it is important to determine if these novel properties produce adverse responses in animals or humans before they are commercialized, said Robert Tanguay an OSU researcher in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology.
Because scientists have the ability to manipulate the properties of nanomaterials, it should be possible to engineer them to be useful components of consumer products with minimal harm to human health or the environment, said Tanguay, who is also a researcher in the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) and director of the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory.
The OSU team, led by Tanguay, will screen a wide range of commonly manufactured nanomaterials to determine their potential interactions with biological systems. Since all biological processes occur during early development, this life stage presents the best time to ask whether a nanomaterial interacts with and impacts a biological process.
If they find nanomaterials that produce adverse effects, the OSU team will identify the potential cellular and genetic targets of these nanomaterials and group the particles by composition and effects. Ultimately, many relationships between nanomaterial composition and effects will be defined — a first step in being able to predict nanomaterial-biological interactions.
This is familiar terrain for Tanguay. For more than a decade, he has used zebrafish — a small freshwater species particularly useful for studying the development and genetics of vertebrates — to define the effects of environmental contaminants and pharmaceuticals on early embryonic development. Zebrafish share a remarkable similarity to humans at the molecular, genetic and cellular levels, and many of the zebrafish findings are immediately relevant to humans. Embryonic zebrafish are of special interest for these studies, as they develop quickly, are transparent and can be easily maintained in small amounts of water.
"We believe it is critical to couple the development of novel nanomaterials with the assessment of their effects on biology so society can get the maximum benefit from the nanotechnology revolution," said Tanguay. "A proactive approach where chemical engineers and biologist work together is the best way to achieve this goal. We are fortunate here in Oregon, through ONAMI, to have the perfect academic environment to lead this international effort."