Nano consortium concludes five years of scientific advances and collaboration
By Kelly Lenox
In 2010, NIEHS established a consortium of research centers to study the health effects of engineered nanomaterials for five years. As the project came to a close, consortium researchers gathered for a final meeting May 6-7 at Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, to share their scientific advances and discuss the challenges ahead.
Sri Nadadur, Ph.D., program director for the NIEHS Nanotechnology Environmental Health and Safety program, described the consortium’s threefold research agenda. “We wanted researchers to address cellular and molecular level activity, then transfer those findings to animal studies,” Nadadur explained. “And we wanted to take those observations and develop predictive modeling for risk assessment.”
With more than 20 grantees, including eight research centers and several individual researchers, the consortium structure provided a means to share results and discuss challenges, Nadadur said. As a way to focus research, all grantees studied silver nanoparticles and multiwalled carbon nanotubes provided by NIEHS. In addition, researchers chose various other nanomaterials to study, including metal oxides, silica oxide, silver nanowires, carbon 60, and quantum dots.
Strategic, groundbreaking research
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., welcomed researchers. “The nano environmental health research program has become an important component in three strategic goals of the NIEHS strategic plan,” she said.
Engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) are synthetic particles with any external dimension between 1 and 100 nanometers. They are at the forefront of a number of advances in medicine, technology, and consumer products, and until recently, little was known about their health effects.
Two days of research presentations, posters, and discussions revealed that consortium researchers have made significant inroads toward understanding the mechanisms of physiological responses to nanoparticle exposures, from rates of cellular uptake to inflammatory and cytotoxic responses.
Researchers also explored how those responses could be moderated by the size, charge, coating, and surface chemistry of the particles. “Two centers clearly demonstrated, at the cellular and animal levels, how physical and chemical properties influence cellular response,” said Nadadur, who reviewed the highlights of the consortium results (see sidebar). “The consortium achievements in addressing the goals of nano environmental health are greater than any one individual effort,” he added.
Insights to guide future designs
According to Nadadur, one of the NIEHS goals for the consortium was to make advances that would help guide the design of the next generation of nanomaterials. That goal was met, as evidenced by findings shared by several presenters.
For example, the team at the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Nanobiology and Predictive Toxicology explored whether there were unique nanoscale characteristics that contributed to hazards in the lung. Andre Nel, Ph.D, described their discovery that the effects of zinc oxide were less toxic when some of the zinc oxide particle’s surface was coated with iron in a controlled manner.
The center at the University of California, Davis also studied respiratory effects. Kent Pinkerton, Ph.D., discussed his team’s findings on how the surface coating of nanoparticles influenced the effects of exposure. “If we can work toward modifying the ways in which nanomaterials are synthesized, while maintaining their marvelous properties, I think we can find ways to create materials that are less toxic,” he said.
Results lead to next steps
By the end of 2014, more than 200 papers on consortium research had been published, and scores more are in review or preparation stages. NIEHS is using the results of this project to design the next one.
“To continue to build on the success and the scientific knowledge gained from this consortium, plans have been initiated for issuing new funding opportunity announcements,” said Birnbaum. “Please stay tuned.” Nadadur said announcements would be made in the near future.