Scientists at the University
of Ulster are investigating a link between some man-made nanoparticles,
such as those found in sunscreens and Alzheimer's disease.
Professor Vyvyan Howard, a pathologist and toxicologist and Dr Christian Holscher,
an expert in Alzheimer's disease are leading this groundbreaking research into
whether human engineered nanoparticles can induce neurodegenerative disease.
A nanoparticle measures between 1 and 100 nanometres. A nanometre is one millionth
of a millimetre.
Professor Howard and Dr Holscher, who are both based at the Biomedical Sciences
Institute in Coleraine, have been awarded £350,000 from the European Union
to carry out investigations over the next three years.
Their research is part of a worldwide project call NeuroNano which includes
European academic partners at the universities of Dublin, Cork, Edinburgh and
Munich. In America, the universities of California, Rochester and Rice and in
Japan the National Institute of Materials Science.
"The overall science and technology objective of this programme is to
determine if engineered nanoparticles could constitute a significant neuro-toxicological
risk to humans for two diseases - Alzheimer's and Parkinson's," said Professor
The University of Ulster experts will be specifically looking at nanoparticles
present in chemicals found in sunscreens and an additive in some diesel fuels
- titanium dioxide and cerium oxide - and their connection to Alzheimer’s
and Parkinson’s diseases.
“There is now firm evidence that some engineered nanoparticles entering
intravenously or via lungs can reach the brains of small animals. Indeed they
lodge in almost all parts of the brain and there are no efficient clearance
mechanisms to remove them once there,” said Professor Howard.
“There are also suggestions that nanoscale particles arising from urban
pollution have reached the brains of animals and children living in Mexico City.
“It has recently been discovered that nanoparticles can have highly significant
impacts on the rate of misfolding of key proteins associated with neurodegenerative
diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
"The brain itself is a very special organ. It cannot repair by replacing
nerve cells, the ones you get at birth have to last all your life, which makes
them peculiarly vulnerable to long term low dose toxicity.
"The brain has built up some protective mechanisms, such as the blood
brain barrier. A major worry is that nanoparticles seem to be able to circumvent
this. All this adds up to a new field of investigation.
“This research programme is deeply challenging and entails the gathering
of entirely new knowledge in a field – neuronanotoxicology.
“It requires the marshalling of unique expertise, methodologies, techniques
and materials, many themselves completely new and never before brought together
in the required combination.
"The latest figures show that neurodegenerative diseases currently affect
over 1.6% of the European population, with dramatically rising incidence likely
in part to the increase of the average age of the population. This is a major
concern for all industrialized societies.
“There is also some epidemiological evidence that Parkinson’s disease
is connected to environmental pollutants and it is often noted that historically,
reports of Parkinson’s symptoms only began to appear after widespread
“There is some general agreement that pesticides are significant risk
factors. There are persistent claims, based on the epidemiology, that pollution
may be a co-factor in Alzheimer’s disease, but here the evidence is controversial.
“The risk that engineered nanoparticles could introduce unforeseen hazards
to human health is now also a matter of growing concern in many regulatory bodies,
governments and industry.”
The NeuroNano Programme builds on some striking published findings as well
as preliminary data from most significant circumstantial evidence that nanoscale
particles could impact on such diseases.
The University of Ulster is clearly recognised as a leader in the field of
nanotoxicology after winning this funding from the EU - less than 1% of applicants
were successful. This grant builds on expertise in the previous EU Framework
Programme - NanoInteract.