Nanoparticles that are one milliard of a metre in size are widely used, for example, in cosmetics and food packaging materials. There are also significant amounts of nanoparticles in exhaust emissions. However, very little is yet known of their health effects, because only a very small portion of research into nanoparticles is focused on their health and safety risks. Nanoparticles have even been dubbed the asbestos of the 2000s bys some researchers, and therefore a considerable threat to people's health. While the use of nanoparticles in consumer products increases, their follow-up procedures and legislation are lagging behind. The European Union chemicals directive REACH does not even touch upon nanomaterials.
The research teams of Professor Ilpo Vattulainen (Department of Physics, Tampere University of Technology, Finland) and academy researcher Emppu Salonen (Department of Applied Physics, Helsinki University of Technology, Finland) have together with Professor Pu-Chun Ke's (Clemson University, SC, USA) team researched how carbon-based nanoparticles interact with cells. The results provided strong biophysical evidence that nanoparticles may alter cell structure and pose health risks.
It emerged from the research that certain cell cultures are not affected when exposed to fullerenes, i.e. nano-sized molecules that consist of spherical, ellipsoid, or cylindrical arrangement of carbon atoms. Cells are also not affected when exposed to gallic acid, an organic acid that is found in almost all plants and, for instance, in tea. However, when fullerenes and gallic acid are present in the cell culture at the same time, they interact to form structures that bind to the cell surface and cause cell death.
The research demonstrates how difficult it is to map out the health effects of nanoparticles. Even if a certain nanoparticle does not appear toxic, the interaction between this nanoparticle and other compounds in the human body may cause serious problems to cell functions. Since the number of possible combinations of nanoparticles and various biomolecules is immense, it is practically impossible to research them systematically.
The research on cell death caused by fullerenes and gallic acid was recently published in the nanoscience journal Small [E. Salonen, S. Lin, M. L. Reid, M. Allegood, X. Wang, A. M. Rao, I. Vattulainen, P.-C. Ke. Real-time translocation of fullerene reveals cell contraction. Small 4, 1986-1992 (2008)].
Prof. Ilpo Vattulainen
Department of Physics, Tampere University of Technology
P.O. Box 692, FI-33101 Tampere, Finland
Tel. +358 400 510 592
Web: www.tut.fi/biophys/ and www.fyslab.hut.fi/bio/
Academy researcher Emppu Salonen
Department of Applied Physics, Helsinki University of Technology
P.O. Box 1100, FI-02015 TKK, Finland
Tel. +358 9 451 3370
Descriptions of group leaders and their research groups:
Professor Pu-Chun Ke:
Prof. Pu Chun Ke won a Career Award from the National Science Foundation for his research addressing the fate of nanomaterials in biological systems and the environment. His research lab has first demonstrated the delivery of RNA using single-walled carbon nanotubes and invented the use of lysophospholipids for obtaining biocompatible nanomaterials. Based at Clemson University, USA, the Single-Molecule Biophysics and Polymer Physics Laboratory led by Prof. Ke (http://people.clemson.edu/~pcke11/) also examines topics in DNA damage and repair, microscopy, and fundamental and applied soft matter physics.
Professor Ilpo Vattulainen:
The Biological Physics Group (http://www.tut.fi/biophys/ and http://www.fyslab.hut.fi/bio/) of 26 people located at the Department of Physics at Tampere University of Technology, Finland, is directed by Prof. Ilpo Vattulainen. The Group is part of the Computational Nanoscience team selected as a Center of Excellence by the Academy of Finland. The Group is also an affiliate member of the MEMPHYS Center for Biomembrane Physics in the University of Southern Denmark, selected as a Center of Excellence by The Danish National Research Foundation. The Biological Physics Group focuses on computational and theoretical studies of biological systems, the topics including biomembranes, nanomaterials, lipoproteins, drugs, and carbohydrates.
Academy researcher (Dr.) Emppu Salonen:
The Computational Soft Matter Research Group (http://www.fyslab.hut.fi/soft/) is based at the Department of Applied Physics, Helsinki University of Technology (TKK). The group is headed by Dr. Emppu Salonen, who currently has a Research Fellow position with the Academy of Finland. The focus of the group's research is in environmental and biological effects of nanomaterials, most importantly carbon-based nanomaterials such as fullerenes and carbon nanotubes. The current nanomaterial-biomaterial research of the group is funded by the Academy of Finland.