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Home > ARRA Stories > Dr. Andrij Holian: Testing for Nanomaterial Risks
Dr. Andrij Holian: Testing for Nanomaterial Risks

By Alison Davis

January 20, 2010

Andrij Holian, Ph.D., Professor of Toxicology, University of Montana, Missoula

Photo of Dr. Andrij Holian

Dr. Andrij Holian

Nanomaterials are very small — between one and 100 nanometers, which is hundreds of times smaller than a single cell. At such teeny sizes, materials act differently, making them potentially useful as research tools and as medicines. But just how different are they, and are they dangerous? Toxicologist Dr. Andrij Holian came up with a test to learn more.

The Problem: Nanomaterials are the next generation of ingredients that will be used to make consumer products ranging from tools and toys to makeup and medicines. In fact, the future is now: More than a thousand products that contain nanomaterials are already on the market. Nanomaterials have huge promise for use as molecular sensors to detect disease very early and as minidrugs to treat a range of illnesses.

Because nanomaterials are so small — much, much tinier than any currently available drug — they can nimbly maneuver into and between cells, and that can be a good thing. For example, many drugs fail because they cannot sneak past the brain's protective wrapping, called the blood-brain barrier. But what if nano-sized drugs not destined for the brain end up there anyway, or in other places they are not wanted or needed, like the lungs?

Finding a Solution: Many scientists working in nanotechnology are both excited and nervous about the pace of progress in this field. Dr. Holian, for example, sees all kinds of potential medical applications for nanoproducts. However, he thinks industries that make these materials must consider the importance of safety; manufacturers and developers must always keep it on their radar screens. The good news is that researchers and policymakers are working together to assemble and communicate research results and other information. For example, the National Nanotechnology Initiative includes scientists and health officials from 25 government agencies.

Although Dr. Holian was originally trained as a chemist, in recent years he has worked as a toxicologist, or a scientist who studies the effects of natural and synthetic materials on the body. Currently, his main focus is on the effects of nanomaterials on living systems. He thinks that as the nanotechnology field races forward, researchers should be prepared and willing to enter the fray.

"I tell my students all the time that it's very unlikely that they'll be doing what they're doing now in their future scientific careers," Dr. Holian says. "You need to evolve."

Dr. Holian's Recovery Act project is to develop a reliable test to determine whether existing or new nanomaterials interact safely and effectively with the body, a property known as biocompatibility. He is concerned that some models currently in use for screening nanomaterial safety may not be accurate because they rely on whether or not the materials kill cells growing in a dish. His test instead measures whether the shape, charge and other properties of a nanomaterial overstimulate the immune system, which can lead to lung damage and other health problems. The test involves looking for activation of a protein machine called the inflammasome, which is responsible for activation of inflammatory processes.

How This Funding Helps: Dr. Holian's project is a team effort among university chemists, material scientists, toxicologists and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Dr. Holian says that he would not have been able to do this "molecules-to-animals" study if not for Recovery Act funding.

"We wanted to team up to do this work but did not have the resources to get it done," says Dr. Holian. "Now we do, and that's a really great start."

After Two Years … A more reliable indicator of whether nanomaterials are body friendly will be an important tool for nanoscientists working with new nano-sized molecules. Shifting the way we think about the potential hazards of nanomaterials is important, Dr. Holian explains.

"A predictive model based on inflammasome effects rather than cell toxicity could help us label nano-materials as good or bad," Dr. Holian says, adding that a key benefit would be a quick way to screen for modifications that improve biocompatibility.

Recovery Act Investment: The "Bioactivity of Engineered Fiber-Shaped Nanomaterials" study received $450,000 in fiscal year 2009 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

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