Getting to grips with nanomaterial toxicity

by Andrew Maynard on December 15, 2008

Introducing MINChar—a new community initiative to support effective material characterization in nanotoxicity studies.

logo_simpleHere’s a tough one:  Imagine you have a new substance—call it substance X—and you run some tests to see how toxic it is.  But you’re not quite sure what substance X is.

You know that it is a powder, and it is supposed to have chemicals x y and z somewhere in it.  But you don’t know how small the particles are, what shape they are, whether chemical z is on the surface of the particles or inside them, whether the particles all clump together when shoved into the test system or whether they can’t get far enough away from each other after being administered, or whether there is something else present in substance X that really shouldn’t be there.

Now imagine your tests show that substance X looks like it could be rather dangerous.  How do identify which aspect of the material is causing the problem, so you can go about fixing it?

Or imagine someone else wants to repeat your work.  Or they want to compare your data with another study.  How do you know that the substance being used in other studies is the same as substance X, and not simply a crude approximation?

The scenario is somewhat hypothetical, but the issues are very real.  And they have dogged the field of nanotoxicology for over a decade.

The problem is, toxicologists are used to working with substances where chemical identity and mass of material are all that are needed to establish the concentration at which the material becomes harmful.  These folks aren’t used to dealing with materials that “do what they do” because of a complex set of physical and chemical characteristics, and that may change from one environment to another.

But the toxicology community is becoming increasingly aware of the new challenges of studying the harmfulness of engineered nanomaterials.  Which is why a new grass-roots initiative has just been launched to try and change things for the better.

The Minimum Information on Nanomaterial Characterization initiative—MINChar for short—has its roots in a workshop held in Florida back in 2004.  At the time, materials scientists and toxicologists were well aware of the disconnect between conventional toxicology and the new challenges presented by engineered nanomaterials.  But they weren’t clear what to do about it.  And it rapidly became apparent that the research community wasn’t ready to take radical action to change the habits of a lifetime—the ideas were there, but the timing wasn’t right.

Four years on though, the landscape has changed—an increasing amount of nanotoxicology research is being funded and published, and more people are realizing that for the work to be useful, the materials being tested need to be characterized appropriately.

But there is a problem: what constitutes “appropriate.”  Or rather, to the toxicologist who is easily scared by long lists of incomprehensible parameters that require fancy (and expensive) instruments to measure—what is the minimum material characterization that is achievable in practice.

This is what the MINChar initiative set out to address.  Over the course of two days in October, a group of people involved with generating, assessing and using toxicology data got together and hashed out a minimum set of information they thought was necessary for effective studies.  The idea was to put something in place as a community that would compliment initiatives from more august bodies—and start to improve the quality of nanotoxicology studies from the laboratory outward.

The result was a list of nine physical and chemical parameters, and three overarching considerations—available on the MINChar website.

But just as importantly, the meeting spawned a community of people interested in improving the state of material characterization in nanotoxicology studies.

And if you are involved in any way with nanotoxicology—as a researcher, a reviewer, a program manager, a data-user—you can sign up as a member of MINChar Community.  This is something that is being strongly recommended by the organizers of the October workshop—because the more people there are involved in improving the quality of nanotoxicology research, the more likely it is that approaches to using new and potentially useful nanomaterials safety will be developed.

And understanding how to use substance X safely will no longer be like groping in the dark.

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Endnotes

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