MRC determined to make giant strides in nanotoxicology

Probing the potential health risks of new technology has become a funding priority. Zoe Corbyn reports.

January 31, 2008

Funding is pouring into research to develop new nanomaterials and nanoparticles, but there are also other strands to the nanotechnology revolution that are ripe for potential funding.

One such area is nanotoxicology, which has been highlighted by the Medical Research Council as a strategic priority for future research funding. The argument goes that there is no point in ploughing investment into developing nanotechnologies without considering whether the superfine particles being engineered for everything from cosmetics to drug delivery could also pose a safety risk for humans.

"At the moment there is very little investment into this area," explained Heike Weber, the programme manager for nutrition, toxicology and the environment at the MRC.

"We need to look at the safety of these new technologies because otherwise we may end up not being able to apply them."

Dr Weber's message echoes the latest assessment by the Council for Science and Technology. It concluded last year that there was a "need for substantive research" into the toxicology, health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials.

It is a baton that has recently been taken up by the MRC, with the council issuing its first call for nanotoxicology projects in March 2007. Two groups have received funding so far, and there are more proposals in the pipeline, but the MRC is keen to highlight the area as one likely to offer substantial opportunities for medical researchers in times to come.

"I would definitely say that this is a growing area," Dr Weber said.

The MRC's call for proposals, which was issued as a "policy highlight notice" designed to gather evidence to underpin the development of government policy, remains open indefinitely, she said. "It is an ongoing process (that) lasts until we have built up sufficient capacity in the area."

Proposals go before the MRC's Physiological Systems and Clinical Sciences Board (PSCSB) for peer review, where they compete with proposals in other areas, taking account of the "strategic importance" that has been granted to nanotoxicology, Dr Weber said.

The next deadlines for PSCSB review are 14 March (for its October meeting) and 17 September (for its February 2009 meeting).

The call has no specified budget, and there is no upper limit for the grants. "How much we fund in the area is completely dependent on how many applications we get in and what the quality is like," Dr Weber said.

Priorities within the field are, however, specified. They come from those drawn up by the Nanotechnology Research Co-ordination Group, a cross-government group set up to co-ordinate research efforts on nanomaterials' safety.

Nanotoxicology priorities include exploring how nanoparticles could enter via the lungs, skin and gut; how they might be distributed in the body; potential areas for accumulation; toxicity at a cellular level; and the effects they could have on the body, including cancer-causing potential.

Dr Weber's tips for researchers looking for funding in the area are to make sure that they clearly address a priority as well as addressing the usual concerns, including ensuring that the proposals are high quality, innovative and competitive.

"They have got to compete at our board against other proposals," she said.

Terry Tetley, a professor of lung cell biology at Imperial College London's National Heart and Lung Institute is the winner of a £600,000 nanotoxicology grant, the largest awarded so far, for a project to study the interactions of nanoparticles with lung cells.

Working with other disciplines, Professor Tetley intends to study the interactions in real time using a high-powered microscope.

"The exponential increase in nanotechnology raises a concern that these engineered nanosize particles might induce problems if they are inhaled," she said.

Recent evidence suggests that high levels of nano-sized particles in air can be inhaled.

Professor Tetley's background has included work on cigarette smoke and asbestos, and it is only in the past few years that she has expanded into the field of engineered nanoparticles.

"I think people first began to think about the area in the Nineties, but it was a Royal Society joint report in 2004, Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties, that really triggered consciousness and awareness of the situation," she said.

"It was then that people like me began to appreciate that we had techniques and models that we could translate into this new area. I started doing pilot studies to apply for grants at about that time."

The field is a good example of how important it is for researchers to be aware of public policy developments, Dr Weber added.

"It is a very, very new area, and it is only now that we are establishing ourselves," Professor Tetley said.

- See

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