The Center for Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology at the Harvard School of Public Health (Harvard NanoCenter) draws on decades of experience with environmental pollutants and the health effects of particles to address the unique environmental health and safety (EHS) concerns raised by engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) & nanotechnology applications.
Nanoparticles are integral to an increasing array of products, from sunscreen and cancer drugs to batteries and semiconductors. However, the rapid expansion of this technology raises safety concerns and calls for a better understanding of how nanomaterials affect biological and environmental systems. Specifically, we need to learn more about the bio-nano interactions at cellular/molecular, organismal, and environmental levels. Since nanoparticles often display unexpected biological properties, we need to discover new toxicologic priciples to understand their potential risks. This assessment is complicated by the fact that nanoparticles are able to penetrate tissues more deeply than larger particles, so careful evaluation of the dose and especially the anatomic distribution of nanoparticles is essential. It is also important to examine species differences, and differences between in vitro versus in vivo exposure. It is clearly imperative that the fields of nanotoxicology and risk assessment keep pace with nanotechnology and its expanding universe of applications.
New Technology Brings New Questions
How do we balance the potential of nanotechnology with the potential hazards from new and often inadequately characterized materials? The rapid expansion of nanotechnology is a powerful scientific and economic force. However, we need to match this progress with careful evaluation of the possible toxicity of nanomaterials and technologies. This process can be made more efficient by searching for fundamental principles that govern biological responses to nanomaterials, rather than assessing the toxicity of specific nanomaterials one at a time. How do we discover the rules of nanotoxicology? A promising approach is to examine families of engineered and rigorously characterized particles and to study the role of such factors as particle size and shape, composition, and charge. Our NanoCenter is generating these rational families of particles, holding some parameters constant while changing others systematically. We bring together modern in vivo and in vitro toxicologic approaches to carry out the biologic evaluation of nanomaterials. We also seek to advance methods needed to evaluate the safety of nanotechnology. Our NanoCenter combines excellence in material and exposure science with demonstrated skills in lung toxicology, pharmacokinetics, and biology. By developing and utilizing industrially relevant ENM generation systems that enable us to control the properties of “real world” nanomaterial exposures, we will better understand how particle dynamics and physical and chemical parameters alter both pharmacokinetics and the extent of possible injury. Correlations will be made between in vivo and in vitro methods, as well as between in vitro systems using rodent versus human cells. The center will study safer nanomaterial formulation concepts which can reduce the environmental and health implications of ENMs. The center will develop and deploy a variety of exposure assessment technologies to define human exposures to nanomaterials during their full life cycle (manufacture, use, and disposal). Using methods of lifecycle analysis (LCA), we will assess exposures to nanomaterials from “cradle to grave.” Finally, all these data will be integrated using methods of risk assessment and physiologically based pharmacokinetic models. The end result will be a science-based guide to appropriate standards for safety. We neither want to create human health hazards nor do we want to erect unreasonable barriers to the creative uses of nanomaterials in industry and medicine.
The Need: A New Generation of Scientists
As nanotechnology gives rise to new techniques and products, both scientists and the general public are becoming aware of its tremendous potential. It is surprising, therefore, that despite the burgeoning use of nanotechnology as well as concerns about its safety, the number of graduate and postdoctoral trainees in related areas remains small. To address this shortfall, it is vital to create opportunities for training and research in the field of nanotoxicology and risk assessment. The Harvard School of Public Health is poised to lead such efforts and contribute to the training of a new generation of environmental health nanoscientists, building on key strengths at Harvard and other institutions.
Our research and academic activities, coupled with outreach activities, allow us to consult with and inform all stakeholders: the public, public agencies, and corporations. We seek to partner with the industry during the development of nanoproducts and promote the safer formulation of nanomaterials during the development phase.
By creating a Center for Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology at the Harvard School of Public Health, we have an opportunity to foster world-class activities in nano-sciences. We are also able to take advantage of adjacent institutions such as Harvard Medical School and its teaching hospitals, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard, and MIT, which have considerable resources and interest in this field. The center is made up of three divisions, each of which already has considerable momentum. Importantly, these divisions interact with each other because of favorable geography and an environment that fosters productive conversations. Collectively, our multidisciplinary and cutting-edge research positions our center among the leading programs in the United States and throughout the world in this critical intersection of engineering, commerce, and public health.