Nanotechnology is transforming industries from medicine to consumer products, and engineered nanomaterials can now be found in items as diverse as clothing, electronic devices, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. New materials are being produced rapidly. How can their safety be assured?
The September edition of the journal ACS Nano features an article that could lay the groundwork for the integration of alternative testing strategies as part of a new approach to effectively and efficiently assessing the safety of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), as well as traditional chemicals.
The article grew out of a recent workshop hosted by the University of California's Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (UC CEIN), housed at UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute. The event brought together international leaders in nanotechnology from government, industry and higher education to explore the societal challenges posed by the new wave of ENMs and to discuss opportunities for developing a new predictive paradigm for toxicity testing.
The workshop resulted in a first-of-its-kind consensus statement detailing how alternative strategies — among them rapid cellular screening and computer modeling — could be used to benefit decision-making about safety and to create a new method for gauging the health and environmental effects of ENMs. Alternative testing strategies are more cost-effective and quicker than traditional toxicity testing methods, which have resulted in a bottleneck in chemical testing.
UC CEIN, established in 2008, is a world-class research facility that focuses on the responsible use and safe implementation of nanotechnology. The center was recently awarded $24 million by the National Science Foundation, in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to support the center's commitment to nanomaterial safety testing. The new cooperative funding agreement brings the NSF and and EPA's total commitment to UC CEIN's research and outreach agenda to $48 million over 10 years.
"Being able to involve a diverse multi-stakeholder community allowed us to engage in a dialogue very much needed among a multi-stakeholder group about an important area of hazard and risk assessment," said André Nel, a professor of nanomedicine at UCLA and director of UC CEIN.
Among the themes discussed at the UCLA workshop, titled "Alternative Testing Strategies for Carbon Nanotubes and Other Modes of Nanomaterial Toxicity: Developing a 21st-Century Scientific and Policy Framework for Industrial Chemicals," was that ENMs are an important group of materials on which predictive toxicological approaches to testing could be applied. Because of their unique properties and potential toxicity, newly created or developed ENMs can serve as an example for other industrial chemicals, said Nel, lead author of the article.
As Jeffrey Morris, deputy director of the U.S. EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics and a workshop participant, noted: "Nanomaterials provide an opportunity to further the application of alternative testing strategies in advancing EPA's approaches to substance categorization, read-across and structure-activity analysis."
The driving force behind the proposed alternative testing strategies is the need for increased efficiency without compromising accuracy, Nel said. UC CEIN has spent the past five years developing platforms for engineered nanomaterials that allow for their rapid and high-throughput toxicity screening; the center has emerged as a leader in these approaches.
While traditional testing methods involve the use of animal models and can test only one material at a time over a period of months at great expense, this new range of screening approaches can quickly and efficiently explore dozens, perhaps hundreds, of material classes and characteristics, Nel said.
The traditional time-intensive approach of testing the toxicity of chemicals one at a time has left an enormous backlog of untested chemicals. With the emergence of large numbers of ENMs, society urgently needs new approaches to chemical testing that can more effectively and efficiently assess toxicity and more accurately evaluate their chemical risk, Nel said.
Such approaches, he said, would balance safeguarding human and environmental health and safety with promoting innovation of new materials and products. These approaches would allow agencies confronted with making decisions about the use of ENMs to consider new tools to assist in this process.
The recently renewed University of California Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (UC CEIN) is a multi-institutional research center headquartered at UCLA, with a second major hub at UC Santa Barbara. The center engages sciences from across disciplines to fulfill the long-term vision of developing a multidisciplinary and quantitative framework for assessing the potential environmental impact, hazard and exposure to ENMs, in both their primary as well as commercial nano-enabled formulations. The center also provides feedback and guidance for the safer implementation of nanotechnology, including risk reduction and safer design strategies. Established in 2008, the UC CEIN is funded by a cooperative agreement from the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Primary research is carried out by researchers at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, UC Riverside, Columbia University, Northwestern University, the University of New Mexico, the University of Texas–El Paso, the University of Arizona and Germany's University of Bremen.
The California NanoSystems Institute is an integrated research facility located at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. Its mission is to foster interdisciplinary collaborations in nanoscience and nanotechnology; to train a new generation of scientists, educators and technology leaders; to generate partnerships with industry; and to contribute to the economic development and the social well-being of California, the United States and the world.