Research explores interactions between nanomaterials, biological systems

June 19, 2009

The recent explosion in the development of nanomaterials with enhanced performance characteristics for use in commercial and medical applications has increased the likelihood of people coming into direct contact with these materials.

There are currently more than 800 products on the market -- including clothes, skin lotions and cleaning products -- claiming to have at least one nanocomponent, and therapeutic nanocarriers have been designed for targeted drug delivery inside the human body. Human exposure to nanomaterials, which are smaller than one one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair, raises some important questions, including whether these "nano-bio" interactions could have adverse health effects.

Now, researchers at UCLA and the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), along with colleagues in academia and industry, have taken a proactive role in examining the current understanding of the nano-bio interface to identify the potential risks of engineered nanomaterials and to explore design methods that will lead to safer and more effective nanoparticles for use in a variety of treatments and products.

In a research review published in the July issue of the journal Nature Materials (and currently available online), the team provides a comprehensive overview of current knowledge on the physical and chemical properties of nanomaterials that allow them to undergo interactions with biological molecules and bioprocesses.

"What we have established here is a blueprint that will serve to educate the first generation of nanobiologists," said Dr. Andre Nel, leader of the team and chief of the division of nanomedicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the California NanoSystems Institute.

Despite remarkable advances in nanoscience, relatively little is known about the intracellular activity and function of engineered nanomaterials, an area of study particularly important for the development of effective and safe nanoparticle drug-delivery systems. Much of the current knowledge derives from the study of tagged or labeled nanoparticles and their effects on cells after cellular uptake -- without any detailed understanding of what these interactions may lead to, good or bad.

The review article examines the variety of ways in which nanomaterials interface with biological systems and presents a roadmap of the physical and chemical properties of the materials that could lead to potentially hazardous or advantageous interactions at the nano-bio interface. A better understanding of the biological impact, combined with appropriate stewardship, will allow for more informed decisions about design features for the safe use of nanotechnology.

In addition to Nel, the team included Tian Xia, a researcher in UCLA's nanomedicine division, UCLA associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Eric Hoek, Lutz Mädler of the University of Bremen, Darrell Velegol of Penn State University, Ponisseril Somasundaran of Columbia University, Fred Klessig of Pennsylvania Bio Systems, Vince Castranova of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Mike Thompson of FEI Co.

"We are committed to ensuring that nanotechnology is introduced and implemented in a responsible and safe manner," said Nel, who also directs the Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency and is headquartered at the CNSI.

"Based on our rapidly improving understanding of nano-bio interactions, we have done a thorough examination of the literature and our own research progress to identify measures that could be taken for safe design of nanomaterials," he said. "Not only will this improve the implementation and acceptance of this technology, but it will also provide the cornerstone of developing new and improved nanoscale therapeutic devices, such as drug-delivering nanoparticles."

The review article spotlighted several important research advancements:Based on the link between certain nanomaterial properties and potential toxic effects, the team asserts that scientists can reengineer specific nanomaterial properties that are hazardous while maintaining catalytically useful function for industrial use.

As an example of a safe design feature, some nanoparticles now receive a surface coating designed to improve safety by preventing bioreactivity. Nanoparticles in cosmetic formulations such as suntan lotions, for instance, may be coated with a water-repelling polymer to reduce direct contact with human skin. An extension of this principle uses polymers and detergents to decrease cellular uptake. However, there is the potential that when the coating wears off, the material may become hazardous. It is therefore important to consider improving the stability of coating substances. Coating nanoparticles with protective shells is also an effective means of preventing the breakup of materials that could release toxic substances upon dissolution.

"Instead of waiting for knowledge to unfold randomly, we can already begin to view the events at nano-bio interface as a discoverable scientific platform that can be used for setting up a deliberate inorganic-organic roadmap to new, better and safer products," Nel said. "What we can identify by understanding the rules that shape the nano-bio interface will have a massive impact on the ability to develop safe nanomaterials in the future."
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The California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) is an integrated research center operating jointly at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara whose mission is to foster interdisciplinary collaborations for discoveries in nanosystems and nanotechnology; train the next generation of scientists, educators and technology leaders; and facilitate partnerships with industry, fueling economic development and the social well-being of California, the United States and the world. The CNSI was established in 2000 with $100 million from the state of California and an additional $250 million in federal research grants and industry funding. At the institute, scientists in the areas of biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, mathematics, computational science and engineering are measuring, modifying and manipulating the building blocks of our world -- atoms and molecules. These scientists benefit from an integrated laboratory culture enabling them to conduct dynamic research at the nanoscale, leading to significant breakthroughs in the areas of health, energy, the environment and information technology.

For more news, visit the UCLA Newsroom.

University of California - Los Angeles

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