The much heralded nanotechnology revolution is not happening with a big bang that completely turns our lives upside down, but rather in a creeping stealth mode where many ordinary everyday products, from cosmetics and textiles to electronic devices, sporting goods and car paint increasingly contain engineered nanoparticles. Sometimes, these nanoparticles are just a smaller version of the material already used in a product, for instance zinc oxide in sunscreen lotions, sometimes these particles are a new addition to a product, as for example fullerenes added to oil lubricants to improve their performance. This trend of increasing use of engineered nanoparticles in commercial products raises the question of what happens at the end-of-life stage of these products, when they get disposed or recycled. Is there is a risk of these nanoparticles being released into the environment? And if yes, is there a risk of these nanoparticles causing harm? This is an area of nanotechnology risk research that remains largely unexplored. In a groundbreaking study to determine the effects of nanoparticles on aquatic organisms, scientists at the University of Wisconsin's Great Lakes Water Institute in Milwaukee have demonstrated that all nanoparticles are not created equal - at least when it comes to their effects on aquatic organisms. They have also discovered that existing attitudes toward the safety of titanium dioxide may be dangerous.
The fight against infections is as old as civilization. Silver, for instance, had already been recognized in ancient Greece and Rome for its infection-fighting properties and it has a long and intriguing history as an antibiotic in human health care. Modern day pharmaceutical companies developed powerful antibiotics - which also happen to be much more profitable than just plain old silver - an apparent high-tech solution to get nasty microbes such as bacteria under control. In the 1950s, penicillin was so successful that the U.S. surgeon general at the time, William H. Stewart, declared it was "time to close the book on infectious diseases, declare the war against pestilence won." Boy, was he wrong! These days, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the infections acquired in hospitals alone (of all places! it's 2007 and we can't even make our hospitals safe - how scary is that?) affect approximately 2 million persons annually. In the U.S., between 44,000 and 98,000 people die every year from infections they picked up in hospitals. As our antibiotics become more and more ineffective researchers have begun to re-evaluate old antimicrobial substances such as silver. Antimicrobial nano-silver applications have become a very popular early commercial nanotechnology product. Researchers have now made a first step to add carbon nanotubes to our microbe-killing arsenal.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental organization in which representatives of 30 industrialized countries in North America, Europe and the Asia and Pacific region, as well as the European Commission, meet to co-ordinate and harmonize policies, discuss issues of mutual concern, and work together to respond to international problems. Most of the OECD's work is carried out by more than 200 specialized committees and working groups composed of member country delegates. The OECD's Environment, Health and Safety Division has taken up the safety of nanomaterials as one of their priority issues. After several preliminary meetings in 2005 and 2006, the OECD's Chemical Committee set up a Working Party to address the health and environmental safety implications of manufactured nanomaterials (the WPMN). After a meeting in Berlin, Germany earlier this year, the WPMN has just released a document that compiles information provided by member countries and other delegations on current developments on the safety of manufactured nanomaterials in their countries or organizations and also on current activities related to nanotechnologies and nanomaterials in other International Organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The report makes clear that there are numerous projects and initiatives going on with regard to nanotechnology safety research. It would be nice at some point to see all these research results come together in one coherent and conclusive set of results as to where and what the risks are and how they will be controlled and managed.
The question if certain engineered nanoparticles are toxic, and if yes to what degree, is still one of the major issues that hasn't been properly answered yet. Most studies in the literature thus far have focused on the environmental aspects of nanoparticle toxicity, and these studies have been conducted primarily on industrial or natural/incidental nanoparticles. However, engineered nanoparticles are at the forefront of the rapidly developing field of nanomedicine; and here they are deliberately injected into the body to perform a specific medical application: fluorescent agents for imaging; drug delivery vehicles; or therapeutic agents for the destruction of cancer cells (for instance in thermolysis); just to name a few. A brand new review article provides the first comprehensive summary of the properties of engineered nanoparticles which determine their interaction with components of the immune system. It concludes that nanoparticle-based therapeutics are no more intrinsically immunotoxic than traditional pharmaceuticals, such as biotechnology-derived or small molecules. Moreover, incorporation of traditional drugs into nanotechnology formulations frequently results in a decrease in immunotoxicity compared to the native drug. Although many questions still require thorough investigation, the available data suggest that nanoparticles can be engineered to become the next generation of biocompatible drug delivery platforms.
A quantum dot (QD), also called a nanocrystal, is a semiconductor nanostructure that can be as small as 2 to 10 nm. The usefulness of quantum dots comes from their peak emission frequency's extreme sensitivity - quantum mechanical in nature - to both the dot's size and composition. QDs have been touted as possible replacements for organic dyes in the imaging of biological systems, due to their excellent fluorescent properties, good chemical stability, broad excitation ranges and high photobleaching thresholds. However, the main drawback of QDs is their toxicity and therefore their application is problematic. If this toxicity problem could be addressed, QDs may one day be safely utilized in many areas. For instance, cadmium telluride (CdTe - which is toxic) QD based nanocomposites can be used as fluorescent probes for biological imaging, they can also be utilized to monitor targeted drug delivery and for controlled modification of structural and functional properties of intracellular components. Scientists in Ireland have been using gelatin during the production of CdTe QDs thereby reducing the toxicity of the particles. Their approach could be useful for the development of other nanoparticle composites with low toxicity as well.
New technology, whether it is a novel cancer treatment or an innovative approach to farming, almost always comes with risk. Those risks are often first - and most severely - felt by industry workers, and nanotechnology is no different. Today, workers around the world are exposed to nanoparticles on a daily basis. There is much speculation, yet so far, little definitive information about how exposure affects workers. A report released by the International Council on Nanotechnology in November 2006, offers a clear picture of the situation. "The properties for which novel nanoscale materials are designed may generate new risks to workers, consumers, the public, and the environment. While some of these risks can be anticipated from experiences with other synthetic chemicals and with existing knowledge of ambient and manufactured fine particles, novel risks associated with new properties cannot easily be anticipated based on existing data." Questions, such as how to measure toxicity and how to monitor and control exposure, remain unanswered.
In our May 7 spotlight "The potential and the pitfalls of nanomedicine" we took a general look at the potential implications of nanomedicine and addressed some ethical issues that arise as the technology develops. In part two of this article we now take a closer look at emerging nanomedical techniques such as nanosurgery, tissue engineering, nanoparticle-enabled diagnostics, and targeted drug delivery. Again, the ethical issues inherent in these emerging medical technologies need to be considered. There are established principals for ethical assessment of existing, conventional, medical technologies and a new research article examines if and how these principals can be extended to nanomedicine.
Engineered nanoparticles are at the forefront of the rapidly developing field of nanomedicine. Their unique size-dependent properties, of which optical and magnetic effects are the most used for biological applications, makes them suitable for a wide range of biomedical applications such as cell labeling and targeting, tissue engineering, drug delivery and drug targeting, magnetic resonance imaging, probing of DNA structure, tumor destruction via heating (hyperthermia), and detection and analysis of biomolecules such as proteins or pathogens. Many of these applications can also be tailored to target skin to help in the early diagnosis of a skin disease, which then could also be treated via nanocarriers. In addition, a tissue engineering approach could be useful for skin wound healing therapies and the magnetic properties of these particles might help in directing and localizing these agents in a particular layer of the skin where their action is desired. Unfortunately, if nanoparticles are able to penetrate layers of skin for therapeutic purposes, they might equally be able to penetrate skin unintentionally. This raises the question if people, who are exposed to such nanomaterials, could accidentally be contaminated and thus exposed to a potential local and/or systemic health risk. Researchers in Italy now have begun to systematically evaluate both risks and applications of nanoparticle skin absorption.