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OSU to study nanotechs safety

By Jennifer Nitson, Corvallis Gazette Times

Advances in the field of nanotechnology have resulted in miniscule man-made particles showing up in a vast array of consumer products.

In computer equipment, medical and dental compounds, cosmetics even in stain-guard coatings on fabrics these nanomaterials promise a multitude of high-tech benefits. The use and development of nanotechnology is expected to grow by leaps and bounds in the next several years.

From chemotherapy that can target a tumor without adverse effects on the overall health of the patient to longer-lasting tennis balls, nanotechnology has a lot to offer society.

But is the introduction of nanoparticles into the environment and into our bodies safe?

Oregon State University research scientists have received grants totaling $600,000 to evaluate whether some man-made nanomaterials could be toxic to human health.

Awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency, which houses research facilities at OSU, the grants were announced Friday and presented to associate professors Robert Tanguay and Alan Bakalinsky.

This is really a great opportunity that we can finally provide data (about the safety of nanomaterials), said Tanguay.

He expressed both excitement about the possibilities of nanotechnology and the need to address the publics concerns.

We just need to sort it all out and do solid science, and everybody should benefit from that, he said.

Tanguay and a team of researchers from OSUs department of environmental and molecular toxicology will work to develop a system capable of rapidly assessing the interactions of man-made nanomaterials with biological organisms.

Such a system would allow manufacturers to submit nanomaterials to be assessed very early in the design process, and scientists could then give advice regarding their safety and use.

The goal is to identify the mechanisms by which these interactions occur, Tanguay said. What are the properties of nanomaterials that predict their interactions in complex biological organisms?

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.

Bakalinsky, of OSUs College of Agricultural Sciences, will head a team of researchers looking into how man-made nanomaterials might damage or kill cells.

Were trying to identify specific structures in manufactured nanoparticles that might cause damage to cells, said Bakalinsky. If we can determine which shapes and structures are most dangerous to cell function, it should be possible to design the materials to avoid such shapes in order to minimize the risk of damage.

Bakalinsky and collaborators from Rice University in Houston are using Saccharomyces cerevisiae the common yeast used to make wine, beer, and bread as the test subject in their research. They are focusing specifically on how the shape and tendency of nanoparticles to clump together affects yeast survival.

Yeast shares a great number of functions with human and animal cells, and provides a very powerful model to look at cells, said Bakalinsky. It reproduces rapidly, is easily manipulated, and its entire genome was mapped years ago so we know exactly what we are looking at and can pinpoint specific functions that are relevant to how nanomaterials may or may not cause toxicity.

This genomic approach will allow for relatively quick identification of genes and proteins that play key roles in protecting cells from damage caused by these materials. Because many of these genes are also found in humans, much of what is learned about the yeast response to nanomaterials is expected to have direct relevance to how humans respond.

Though little is known about the effects of nanoparticles on humans and the environment, there has been hype surrounding nanotechnology and its possible dangers. Some nanoparticles are easily absorbed into the human body. Some studies suggest that nanoparticles can cause DNA mutation and cell damage.

Nanoparticles from industrial, medical and consumer use continue to make their way into landfills and water tables. Nobody really knows how long they will be there.

Given that some nanoparticles being produced have the tensile strength of the strongest man-made materials at this point, Im assuming they will be very persistent, said Stacey Harper, a post-doctoral research associate who works with Tanguay.

Still, nanotechnology has the potential to more safely provide benefits to humans previously achieved by the use of toxic chemicals, Tanguay said.

With a lack of information you cant make an assumption that (nanotechnology) is harmful or dangerous, he said.

Because of the threat of consumer backlash, manufacturers have a vested interest in the safety of the nanomaterials in their products, Tanguay said, and environmental engineers and toxicologists around the world are being proactive in the design of nanomaterials to ensure their safety.

I think we should be able to get it all, Tanguay said. To have all the benefits of nanomaterials and the safety of the environment.

At a glance

Nanotechnology: The science of manipulating extremely small particles. The physical, chemical, electronic and optical properties of these particles may be different than the same material in larger form.

Nanoparticle: Any particle smaller than 0.25 millionths of an inch or 1,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

Nanomaterial: Material, such as a surface coating applied to a product, made up of nanoparticles. Sometimes used synonymously with nanoparticle.

An inventory of products containing nanomaterials can be found at: www.nanotechproject.org/index.php?id=44&action=view

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