The European Union (EU) NanoSafety Cluster (NSC) is a grouping of projects funded by various programs within the EU that aim to harmonize and coordinate research around nanotoxicology and the safety of nanomaterials.
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The NSC operates several working groups, each with a specific focus in the field of nanotoxicology, including detailed physicochemical characterization and the establishment of standards, determination of the ultimate biological and environmental fate of nanomaterials, and their toxicity to humans and other organisms.
Besides funding research directly, the NSC also supports and facilitates governmental and business interests related to nanomaterial safety. For example, the NanoMonitor project was prioritized by the NSC and allowed real-time information and monitoring of commercially available nanomaterials as required under EU registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals (REACH) regulations.
This has allowed commercial nanomaterials to be logged and tracked from source to consumer and enables quick action on registered nanomaterials should new scientific data come to light that demands a product recall or other action. Several of the most prominent completed or ongoing projects coordinated or funded by the NSC will be discussed further below.
Nanotoxicology Standards and Assessment
Compared with conventional small molecule drugs, nanomaterials are inconsistently and poorly described owing to the relative novelty of the field. Therefore, several significant NSC coordinated projects have been aimed at standardizing and improving the relevance of future scientific reporting on nanotoxicology profiles.
The NanoGenTools project developed high throughput in vitro testing methods that incorporate in silico analysis from the fields of genomics, proteomics, and bio and chemoinformatics to allow cost-effective toxicity assessment of nanomaterials in various biological organisms. The applications of such a system are evident in the field of bionanochemistry, where nanomaterials are routinely introduced into biological systems for theranostics purposes, but also with uses in the assessment of the impact of nanomaterial release into the environment.
As nanomaterials are increasingly produced or utilized in industrial processes, regulatory frameworks must be established that consider the unique environmental fate of nanomaterials of different types, allowing exposure and release assessment comparable to that achieved for conventional chemicals.
The NanoFASE project was tasked with setting up this framework regarding protocols, models, and parameters to generate an efficient product-to-market process. It also investigated the behavior of nanomaterials in waste and their accumulation in the environment. Another completed NSC project named NanoFARM aimed to examine and inform on the sustainable agricultural use of nanofertilizers. Specifically, their persistence in the environment, bioaccumulation in wheat and tomato plants, their transfer to grazing animals, as well as their long-term toxicity and ecological impact were investigated.
Standardized analytical methods were also developed to allow the determination of nanomaterials in soil samples at relevant concentrations, with the project primarily coordinated by Carnegie Mellon University, University of Aveiro, University of Kentucky, and the University of Vienna.
Nanomaterial Sustainability by Design
The NSC aims to identify problems related to nanotoxicology and safety before they arise, and several ongoing NSC projects are tasked with monitoring and developing sustainable nanotechnological breakthroughs in a “safe by design” approach.
One project initiated in early 2020 named Anticipating Safety Issues at the Design Stage of Nano Product Development (ASINA) is concerned in particular with the development and safety of antibacterial and antiviral nanocoatings for use in textiles and on other surfaces, in air filters and masks, and in sprays or gels.
Silver nanoparticles are well known to possess antimicrobial properties owing primarily to the generation of reactive oxygen species and have been incorporated into a variety of materials for this purpose in recent decades. The ANISA project is working with industrial partners Colorobbia (Portugal) and Mica (UK), amongst others, to develop silver nanoparticle functionalized surgical masks and other personal protective equipment and more importantly, the industrial processes surrounding production and waste removal.
Similarly, research company Bionano Genomics (USA) and cosmetics manufacturer Red of View (Italy) work within the ANISA project to incorporate antiviral polymer-coated silver nanoparticles capable of suspension in an oil medium or as a finely granulated powder for spraying.
The possible long-term biological and environmental impact of the mass production of silver nanomaterial implanted products, particularly in light of renewed demand in the face of the recent pandemic, is as yet not completely clear, and even gradual low-grade emission and accumulation in the biosphere may cause serious harm. For example, toxicity toward environmental microbes may cause disruption of the nitrogen cycle and interfere with ordinary decomposition processes.
For this reason, a “safe by design” approach is fundamental to the NSC’s objectives, preventing problems from arising through early investigation and planning.
What Published Work has the NSC Produced?
As of June 2022, the NSC list 497 published research papers with which they have had direct involvement through funding or facilitation. All of these articles should be publically available through the EU open science initiative, and in time the organization aims to freely provide access to relevant data, software, and standards and specifications.
Several papers of great acclaim have been produced via a partnership with the NSC, such as the 2015 Pelaz et al. paper “Surface Functionalization of Nanoparticles with Polyethylene Glycol: Effects on Protein Adsorption and Cellular Uptake”, which explored the interactions of the commonly employed poly ethylene glycol nanomaterial coating with physiologically relevant proteins.
Research of this type paves the way for the further development of nanomaterial-based therapeutic and diagnostic agents, which must traverse the biological medium and interact with the intended target structure without engaging in excessive protein interaction en route, leading to early excretion.
While the NSC is an organization within the EU, global academic and industrial partnerships are maintained and funding and participation are available to any group through the EU’s Horizon 2020 framework, which sets out the EU research budget up to the year 2020.
Going forward, the NSC is working towards a number of international commitments, such as the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and World Health Organization resolutions, aiming to promote resource pooling and proper application of resources with regard to nanotoxicology.
References and Further Reading
Www3.ubu.es. (2022). About the project – Nanogentools Project. [online] Available at: https://www3.ubu.es/nanogentools/about-us/ [Accessed 24 August 2022].
Babbitt, C. and Moore, E., (2018) Sustainable nanomaterials by design. Nature Nanotechnology, 13(8), pp.621-623. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41565-018-0235-7
Pelaz, B., del Pino, P., Maffre, P., Hartmann, R., Gallego, M., Rivera-Fernández, S., de la Fuente, J., Nienhaus, G. and Parak, W., (2015) Surface Functionalization of Nanoparticles with Polyethylene Glycol: Effects on Protein Adsorption and Cellular Uptake. ACS Nano, 9(7), pp.6996-7008. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsnano.5b01326
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