NIEHS to Fund More Research on Health, Safety of Nanomaterials

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, is increasing its investment in understanding the potential health, safety, and environmental issues related to tiny particles that are used in many everyday products such as sunscreens, cosmetics, and electronics, by awarding about $13 million over a two-year period, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to bolster the NIEHS’s ongoing research portfolio in the area of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs).

Engineered nanomaterials are very tiny materials about 100,000 times smaller than a single strand of hair. They represent a significant breakthrough in material design and development for industry and consumer products, including stain-resistant clothing, pesticides, tires, and electronics, as well as in medicine for purposes of diagnosis, imaging, and drug delivery.

"We currently know very little about nanoscale materials' effect on human health and the environment," said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), an interagency program for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Nanomaterials come in so many shapes and sizes, with each one having different chemical properties and physical and surface characteristics. They are tricky materials to get a handle on. The same properties that make nanomaterials so potentially beneficial in drug delivery and product development are some of the same reasons we need to be cautious about their presence in the environment."

NIEHS has awarded 13 new two-year grants through the Recovery Act to develop better methods to assess exposure and health effects associated with nanomaterials. Ten of the grants were awarded through the NIH Grand Opportunities program announced in March 2009, and three were funded from the NIH Challenge Grants program. All 13 are aimed at developing reliable tools and approaches to determine the impact on biological systems and health outcomes of engineered materials.

The new awards focus on ensuring that we have reliable and reproducible methods and models to assess exposure, exposure metrics, and biological response to nanomaterials. This research is also essential for the harmonization of research results and forming a scientifically sound basis for hazard assessment, as well as the safe design and development of ENMs.

"There are inconsistencies in the biological effects of ENMs reported in the scientific literature, and a major reason for this is lack of detailed characterization of the physical and chemical properties of the ENMs used in these studies," said Sri Nadadur, Ph.D., program administrator at the NIEHS. "One of our goals is to identify three or four reliable and reproducible test methods using the same ENMs by investigators across different labs."

To accomplish this, the NIEHS brought 36 investigators together on Oct. 20, 2009 in North Carolina, where the NIEHS is headquartered, to identify ENMs, assays and test systems to be utilized in these investigations in a more coordinated and integrated effort.

NIEHS is establishing an integrated program that will narrow its focus to identify the best methods to evaluate the health effects of nanomaterials through use of cell cultures and animal systems. After the initial meeting, grantees will meet face-to-face twice a year to share information, evaluate progress and determine next steps.

"Recovery Act funds have allowed us to expand our efforts in this important area," said Sally Tinkle, Ph.D., senior science advisor at the NIEHS. "We want to be sure that we come away with some better tools to assess the health and safety of nanomaterials."

This NIEHS effort focused on nanomaterials supports the goals identified by the National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategy for Nanotechnology-related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research.

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