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|Human lung cells (A549) exposed to hematite nanoparticles (70 nm). Transmission electron micrograph|
A new handbook has been published under Empa leadership which aims to unify European standards in nanoparticle research. It contains detailed regulations for the manufacture and analysis of specific nanoparticles in the laboratory environment, placing research work in this field on a unified foundation and enabling valid comparisons to be made between studies. The editor, Prof. Harald Krug, is head of Empa's «Materials meet Life» Department.
The new standard work is intended to bring to an end to the confusing mishmash of jargon which currently prevails in the nanoresearch field. This, at any rate, is Harald Krug's assessment of the situation. Krug is a member of the Empa Board of Directors and a nanoparticle specialist. In the past few years the number of publications on nanotoxicology has increased dramatically, from 150 scientific papers in 2004 to 1800 last year. And yet Krug has determined that, in describing the material being studied, every author defines things in their own way. "To date only the names of the substances being investigated are reported, such as zinc oxide," Krug criticizes. "But in what form do the nanoparticles occur? Are they spheres? Cylinders? Or ultrafine needles? Does the material contained traces of catalysts in addition to zinc oxide? Has it been given a coating to stabilize its surface?" In many publications all these questions and more remain unanswered, which means that the results of the research work are not comparable with other studies - and therefore of no value.
Exact regulations - with an update method
The new fundamental reference work, named the «Quality Handbook» and subtitled «Standard Procedures for Nanoparticle Testing», is intended to provide a common scientific basis for European research projects in the nanomaterials field. The document was put together by the «Nanommune» consortium, a group of European and US research institutes, and financed by the European commission under the aegis of the 7th Framework Program. As editor of the handbook, Harald Krug was responsible for drawing the results of all his colleagues' work together. The handbook contains over 80 so-called SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures). With the help of these instructions nanoparticles with defined properties can be synthesized in the laboratory. The SOPs also contain standardized analytical methods which can be used to characterize the physical and chemical properties of the particles as well as their biological effects.
Science never stands still, so a static book of regulations would have a very short period of usefulness before its contents became outdated. For this reason, the authors have made provision for future revisions of the new work even before its publication. "In a follow-on project (DaNa; www.nanopartikel.info) a special SOP form is being prepared which will be used to provide feedback to the authors on improvements to the standardized methods," explains Krug. These improvements will then be integrated into future editions of the Quality Handbook.
Are nanoparticles dangerous?
The Nanommune research project, which lasted for three years, dealt with the toxicological characterization of industrially produced nanoparticles - which are to a certain extent "designed" - as opposed to naturally occurring nanoparticles such as fine dust. These synthetic nanoparticles have enormous potential to aid industrial growth and to making a significant contribution to enhancing the quality of life of billions of people. However, the risks involved in the use of nanoparticles have to date not been fully investigated. Nanoparticles are over 100 times smaller than a cell and therefore possibly not recognized by the human immune system. Where they accumulate, what paths they take through the body and what effects they have are all questions which are currently under study. There is no reason to panic, according to Krug, for although industrially produced nanoparticles have been used for several decades already, they are not known to have caused any detrimental health effects.
Empa as a Swiss Materials Science and Technology Institution within the ETH domain is part of the Swiss Science-Technology-Education community. It specializes in applied research and development as well as sophisticated services in the field of sustainable materials science and technology. Its core activities are innovative collaboration with industry and public institutions to ensure the safety of humankind and the environment, knowledge propagation and university-level teaching. The Empa Academy disseminates the latest results of our work at events and in publications. The focal points of our activities are: modern materials, their surfaces and interfaces, construction materials and systems, materials and systems that protect the human body and ensure its wellbeing, information, simulation and reliability technology, and mobility, energy and the environment. Approximately 820 employees work in over 30 specialist fields in nationally and internationally funded research programs, partnership-based development projects and interdisciplinary customer-specific service assignments.
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