Thursday, September 01, 2011

Wave of the future or health hazard? Nanoparticles may cause lung cancer

"The findings should raise clear concerns about handling nickel nanoparticles, including preventing the airborne exposure to them in manufacturing."

Nanotechnology has been hailed as the wave of the future, but can particles on the scale of  billionths of a meter harm us? 

New research by an interdisciplinary team of scientists at Brown University says they can. 

The team found that nanoparticles of nickel activate a cellular pathway that contributes to cancer in human lung cells.

"Nanotechnology has tremendous potential and promise for many applications," said Agnes Kane, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. 

"But the lesson is that we have to learn to be able to design them more intelligently and, if we recognize the potential hazards, to take adequate precautions."

Kane is the senior author of the study published in advance online this month in the journal Toxicological Sciences.

Nickel nanoparticles have previously been shown to be harmful, but not in terms of cancer. Kane and her team of pathologists, engineers and chemists found evidence that ions on the surface of the particles are released inside human epithelial lung cells to jumpstart a pathway called HIF-1 alpha. 

Normally the pathway helps trigger genes that support a cell in times of low oxygen supply, a problem called hypoxia, but it is also known to encourage tumor cell growth.

"Nickel exploits this pathway, in that it tricks the cell into thinking there's hypoxia but it's really a nickel ion that activates this pathway," said Kane, whose work is supported by a National Institutes of Health Superfund Research Program Grant. 

"By activating this pathway it may give pre-malignant tumor cells a head start."

Size matters

The research team, also learned that the size of the particle made a difference. 

While the smaller particles set off the HIF-1 alpha pathway, the larger metallic nickel particles proved much less problematic.

Although Kane said the findings should raise clear concerns about handling nickel nanoparticles, including preventing the airborne exposure to them in manufacturing.
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