In a growing number of industries, workers are often unknowingly exposed to nanoparticles (NPs). Do they enter the body? Could they have an impact on health? Professor Denis Girard from the INRS–Institut Armand-Frappier Research Centre has had the foresight to study the potential toxicity of a wide variety of NPs with a view to setting the record straight before problems occur.
His research is being funded by Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST), which will award him a renewable $300,000 grant for the next three years. Professor Girard will focus on the effects of NPs on human immune system cells (eosinophils) that play a key role in inflammation.
"Several studies on NPs have examined how tissues react in contact with these tiny foreign bodies," said Girard. "Researchers have found that eosinophils flock to the contact site, but they have not examined the phenomenon in greater detail." To further investigate why eosinophils come into contact with NPs and the role they play, protocols require expertise in both nanotoxicology and immunology, which is rare.
The immunology professor has this expertise, as he has already studied the effects of NPs on other human immune cells (neutrophils) as part of a complementary project. His team is working to establish an NP inflammatory scale. "In this research protocol, I get my colleagues at the Centre involved in a very special way—they agree to give blood!" said Girard. "By collecting blood, we can also collect eosinophils for the new research component."
According to Professor Girard, understanding the inflammatory response is currently a priority in the field of nanotoxicology. For a number of years, researchers have been observing links between exposure to NPs and asthmatic symptoms in some animals. Does the human body undergo similar inflammation upon contact with NPs? In the absence of any standards for workers, it's best to take a closer look, insists Girard. "At this time, nanoparticles have not been properly identified and are often handled without protection. If they enter the body through the skin, respiratory tract, or even ingestion, we have no idea what happens next." In his lab, a variety of approaches will help further understanding of how nanoparticles of different types and sizes interact. Cellular processes will be examined in detail.
At the rate at which NPs are being developed, Girard could be conducting systematic nanotoxicology studies for many years to come. "I will of course need the support of a strong team," said Girard. "I already have one I am very proud of, and it will be expanded for the new project." The IRSST grant will be used to hire staff and student researchers.
The work seems daunting, but Girard is up to the challenge. He is convinced others will follow suit and that the medium-term results will help establish informed standards to regulate the use of nanoparticles and protect the health of workers and the public.