A team of researchers from Trinity College Dublin (TCD), including some from the nanoscience institute CRANN, is claiming to have come up with a new screening approach to test the safety of nanomaterials and their effects on human cells. The scientists behind the research believe this breakthrough could lead to more customised materials in the future, particularly around healthcare applications.
The findings of this nanomaterials research, which involved researchers from both the School of Medicine at TCD and the Science Foundation Ireland-funded CRANN, were published in the Scientific Reports section of Nature.com recently.
Nanomaterials are nano-scale particles, tubes, rods or fibres and are defined as being smaller that 100 nanometres (100 millionth of a millimetre) in at least one dimension. These particles are tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Scientists are researching how nanomaterials will have the scope to transform manufacturing and be used in areas such as healthcare, electronics and cosmetics.
In the medical devices field, researchers are exploring the potential for nanomaterials in areas such as personalised drug delivery treatments and highly sensitive diagnostic screening against cancer.
In tandem, scientists are assessing the possible health risks linked to nanomaterials.
In their study, CRANN researchers Prof Yuri Volkov and Dr Adriele Prina-Mello and their team found that certain nanomaterials, termed carbon nanotubes, had the effect of raising citrulline protein levels, a molecule which can cause inflammation in the body. However, the researchers said they found that by chemically modifying the carbon nanotube surface, the inflammatory process could be reduced or even suppressed.
Volkov said this is the first time that nanomaterial safety has been tested using citrullination markers. "We believe this is a crucial breakthrough in testing the safety of commercially exploitable nanomaterials," he said.
According to Prina-Mello, the results of the research point to how scientists can ensure the safety of nanomaterials by controlling how they are produced.
"This will ultimately pave the way for the use of customised materials such as ‘safety-proof’ modified carbon nanotubes in future health applications, like smart drug delivery systems for cancer and diabetes treatment and non-invasive sensitive diagnostics, medical imaging and exploratory keyhole surgery," he said.
CRANN’s executive director Dr Diarmuid O’Brien described the research as a "key breakthrough".
The research team at CRANN now plans to research other commercially exploitable nanomaterials, including silver and graphene, in order to explore the concept of safety by design when developing these materials for future commercial applications.