Nanoparticles pose some interesting possibilities for the future of medicine and other technologies. Unfortunately, like most medicines, there’s a chance of some serious side effects in their use. A few weeks ago, I noted some preliminary research suggesting that nanoparticles could potentially impair cell function. Now two more studies have demonstrated more potential dangers involved in the use of nanoparticles.
Carbon Nanoparticles in the Environment Can Cause Kidney Damage
In a paper in the current issue of Nanotoxicology, researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis examined the effect of low concentrations of carbon nanoparticles on cells. Their focus wasn’t on the use of nanoparticles in medicine, but rather what effect incidental environmental contact with nanoparticles has on the body. In other words, they were focused on low concentrations. And even at that, they saw that carbon nanoparticles were able to penetrate kidney cells. That’s a problem, because damage to kidney cells could result in toxic waste products meant to be expelled from the body in urine could end up back in the bloodstream. Or vice versa – blood could penetrate into the kidneys where it’s not supposed to go.
This is a troubling result, because carbon nanoparticles are already in use in medicine and electronics, and that use is increasing. As one of the study authors said, “The human body needs intact barriers, whether it be skin, airway linings, gut walls or the kidney cells we looked at in this study. We need to gain a better understanding of how CNPs modify and change characteristics of barriers as these tiny particles become more common in the air we breathe.”
Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles Can Cause Brain Damage in Fish
Another common type of nanoparticle is titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is very commonly used as a pigment, and in its nanoparticle form it can be found it quite a few sunscreens and other applications. Unfortunately, this may pose some significant risks. Researchers at the University of Plymouth have been able to demonstrate that titanium dioxide nanoparticles were able to cause brain damage in rainbow trout that had been exposed to them.
They found that the particles caused vacuoles (holes) to form in parts of the brain and for nerve cells in the brain to die. Although some effects of nanoparticles have been shown previously in cell cultures and other in vitro systems this is the first time it has been confirmed in a live vertebrate.
One of the researchers noted that the action of the nanoparticles has a parallel to mercury poisoning, which suggests that accumulation of the particles could have some damaging long term effects to wildlife and possibly people as well.
There is still more research to be done on the risks of nanoparticles, but the evidence so far is pretty worrisome. Given the potential benefits of nanoparticles, I’m hoping that some means can be found to produce them in ways that don’t pose risks to health and safety. Research into the mechanisms of potential harms is key to that effort.
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