Getting to grips with nanomaterial toxicity

December 15, 2008

Introducing MINChar—a new community initiative to support effective material characterization in nanotoxicity studies.

logo_simpleHere’s a tough one:  Imagine you have a new substance—call it substance X—and you run some tests to see how toxic it is.  But you’re not quite sure what substance X is.

You know that it is a powder, and it is supposed to have chemicals x y and z somewhere in it.  But you don’t know how small the particles are, what shape they are, whether chemical z is on the surface of the particles or inside them, whether the particles all clump together when shoved into the test system or whether they can’t get far enough away from each other after being administered, or whether there is something else present in substance X that really shouldn’t be there.

Now imagine your tests show that substance X looks like it could be rather dangerous.  How do identify which aspect of the material is causing the problem, so you can go about fixing it?

Or imagine someone else wants to repeat your work.  Or they want to compare your data with another study.  How do you know that the substance being used in other studies is the same as substance X, and not simply a crude approximation?

The scenario is somewhat hypothetical, but the issues are very real.  And they have dogged the field of nanotoxicology for over a decade. Read the rest of this entry »


Toxic particles and trivial pursuits*

November 23, 2008

First impressions of the ICON EHS Database Analysis Tool

What do you do this holiday season when the turkey’s lost its appeal, you’ve seen every movie worth watching ten times over, and conversational déjà-vu sets in?  If you are really desperate, you could play “nano-trivia”—and thanks to the fine folks at the International Council On Nanotechnology (ICON) you now have the perfect widget to help craft those cunning questions that will have your nearest and dearest wracking their brains.

Questions like “between 2000 and 2006, what percentage of scientific papers addressing the toxicity of carbon-based nanomaterials considered exposure via mucous membranes (or the skin)?”

OK, so maybe playing “toxic particle trivial pursuits” is the last resort of the desperate, and likely to result in an ever-decreasing circle of close friends.  But for all that, the new ICON Environmental Health and Safety Database Analysis Tool has its merits… Read the rest of this entry »

Shaking up the nano-food debate

October 20, 2008

Is the RBC Life Sciences® nanotechnology product Slim Shake approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?  According to the BBC Radio 4 science program Frontiers—broadcast on Monday evening—there may be some doubt.  But I get ahead of myself.

The US-based company RBC Life Sciences® sells a range of dietary supplements and food products allegedly based on nanotechnology—8 of them are listed in the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies public inventory of nanotech-enabled consumer products.  As with many of the products in the inventory, it’s hard to tell whether they are truly using nanotechnology, and even harder to tell what steps have been made to assure their safety.  But Monday’s edition of Frontiers shed a little light on this issue… Read the rest of this entry »

Alphabet soup hides the secrets of safe nanotech!

October 14, 2008

After three years of hard work, International Standards Organization (ISO) Technical Committee TC229—set up in 2005 to develop nanotechnology-related standards—has finally begun delivering the goods.  And the first documents off of the blocks tackle head-on the challenges of working safely with engineered nanomaterials.

September saw the publication of the Technical Specification 27687—“Nanotechnologies—Terminology and definitions for nano-objects—Nanoparticle, nanofibre and nanoplate” (ISO/TS 27687).  True to its title, TS 27687 does exactly what it promises… Read the rest of this entry »

Nano-silver: Old problems or new challenges?

September 9, 2008

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

The blogging community is no stranger to the use (and possible abuse) of nanometre-scale silver—products ranging from silver-enhanced socks and toothpaste to plush toys and cure-alls have all appeared in the spotlight recently. With each passing month, the number of nano-silver gizmos on the market is growing.

Back in March 2006 when the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory was launched, there were 25 products claiming to use nanoscale silver. In contrast, the August 2008 update of the inventory brought the number of nano-silver containing products to 235—an increase of nearly ten times over two and a half years!

Read the rest of this entry »

Nanotoxicologists self-assemble

September 9, 2008

If you evaluate the toxicity of an engineered nanomaterial, how far can you trust your results?  If someone else repeats your tests and gets a different answer, did they do it wrong? Did you?  Or was the material used different in some subtle but nevertheless important way?

These are questions that have dogged nanotoxicologists for years, and have undermined many a study.  But help is at hand—a group of scientists have decided to grasp the nettle and start working together to unravel these rather knotty challenges. Read the rest of this entry »

A consumer’s guide to nanotechnology

August 21, 2008


White Swan Uniforms and Scrubs with Nano-Tex

How cool is this: A nanotech-enabled labcoat to protect the user against… well, nanomaterials presumably, amongst other things!  

The labcoat—which uses Nanotex technology to make it stain resistant—is part of a major update to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory that tracks manufacture-identified nano-products.  Other eye-catchers in the update include a hunting shirt that resists bloodstains, a nanotech-based adhesive for McDonald’s burger containers, and an oven-like device for sanitizing whiffy shoes.

Of course, there are plenty of people who feel that consumer products represent an altogether too trivial side of nanotechnology.  And I have to agree that on the scales of virtue, a nano-silver bidet would find it hard to compete with the next generation of nano-enabled solar cells or targeted cancer drugs.  Yet trivial as many of the 800+ products in the updated inventory may seem, this is where most people will probably first come across the technology, and start to form their early opinions on whether it’s a good thing, or not so good.  

And in this bizarrely-connected world within which we live, good experience with nano-bidets (for example) are more likely than not to make the introduction of nano-cancer drugs go just that little bit smoother. Read the rest of this entry »