Carbon nanostructures -- elixir or poison?

Mar 31, 2010

A Los Alamos National Laboratory toxicologist and a multidisciplinary team of researchers have documented potential cellular damage from "fullerenes" -- soccer-ball-shaped, cage-like molecules composed of 60 carbon atoms. The team also noted that this particular type of damage might hold hope for treatment of Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, or even cancer.

The research recently appeared in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology and represents the first-ever observation of this kind for spherical , also known as buckyballs, which take their names from the late Buckminster Fuller because they resemble the geodesic dome concept that he popularized.

Engineered carbon nanoparticles, which include fullerenes, are increasing in use worldwide. Each buckyball is a skeletal cage of carbon about the size of a virus. They show potential for creating stronger, lighter structures or acting as tiny delivery mechanisms for designer drugs or antibiotics, among other uses. About four to five tons of carbon are manufactured annually.

"Nanomaterials are the 21st century revolution," said Los Alamos toxicologist Rashi Iyer, the principal research lead and coauthor of the paper. "We are going to have to live with them and deal with them, and the question becomes, 'How are we going to maximize our use of these materials and minimize their impact on us and the environment?'"

Iyer and lead author Jun Gao, also a Los Alamos toxicologist, exposed cultured human skin to several distinct types of buckyballs. The differences in the buckyballs lay in the spatial arrangement of short branches of molecules coming off of the main buckyball structure. One buckyball variation, called the "tris" configuration, had three molecular branches off the main structure on one hemisphere; another variation, called the "hexa" configuration, had six branches off the main structure in a roughly symmetrical arrangement; the last type was a plain buckyball.

The researchers found that cells exposed to the tris configuration underwent premature senescence—what might be described as a state of suspended animation. In other words, the cells did not die as cells normally should, nor did they divide or grow. This arrest of the natural cellular life cycle after exposure to the tris-configured buckyballs may compromise normal organ development, leading to disease within a living organism. In short, the tris buckyballs were toxic to human skin cells.

Moreover, the cells exposed to the tris arrangement caused unique molecular level responses suggesting that tris-fullerenes may potentially interfere with normal immune responses induced by viruses. The team is now pursuing research to determine if cells exposed to this form of fullerenes may be more susceptible to viral infections.

Ironically, the discovery could also lead to a novel treatment strategy for combating several debilitating diseases. In diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, nerve cells die or degenerate to a nonfunctional state. A mechanism to induce senescence in specific nerve cells could delay or eliminate onset of the diseases. Similarly, a disease like cancer, which spreads and thrives through unregulated replication of cancer cells, might be fought through induced senescence. This strategy could stop the cells from dividing and provide doctors with more time to kill the abnormal cells.

Because of the minute size of nanomaterials, the primary hazard associated with them has been potential inhalation—similar to the concern over asbestos exposure.

"Already, from a toxicological point of view, this research is useful because it shows that if you have the choice to use a tris- or a hexa-arrangement for an application involving buckyballs, the hexa-arrangement is probably the better choice," said Iyer. "These studies may provide guidance for new nanomaterial design and development."

These results were offshoots from a study (Shreve, Wang, and Iyer) funded to understand the interactions between buckyballs and biological membranes. Los Alamos National Laboratory has taken a proactive role by initiating a nanomaterial bioassessmnet program with the intention of keeping its nanomaterial workers safe while facilitating the discovery of high-function, low-bioimpact nanomaterials with the potential to benefit national security missions. In addition to Gao and Iyer, the LANL program includes Jennifer Hollingsworth, Yi Jiang, Jian Song, Paul Welch, Hsing Lin Wang, Srinivas Iyer, and Gabriel Montaño.

Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers will continue to attempt to understand the potential effects of exposure to nanomaterials in much the same way that Los Alamos was a worldwide leader in understanding the effects of radiation during the Lab's early history. Los Alamos workers using nanomaterials will continue to follow protocols that provide the highest degree of protection from potential exposure.

Meantime, Los Alamos research into nanomaterials provides a cautionary tale for nanomaterial use, as well as early foundations for worker protection. Right now, there are no federal regulations for the use of nanomaterials. Disclosure of use by companies or individuals is voluntary. As nanomaterial use increases, understanding of their potential hazards should also increase.

Explore further: Experts cautious over Google nanoparticle project

Related Stories

Where do nanomaterials go in the body?

Nov 02, 2009

Tiny, engineered nanomaterials can already be found in many consumer products, and have been hailed as having widespread future uses in areas ranging from medicine to industrial processes. However, little is known about what ...

Scientists Model Hepatitis C Virus

May 25, 2007

One of the most common life-threatening viral infections in the United States today is hepatitis C virus (HCV). The standard treatment is successful in only about 50 percent of treated HCV chronic patients, with no effective ...

Buckyballs Can Be Nontoxic... Maybe

Jan 09, 2006

Buckminsterfullerene, a form of carbon containing 60 atoms arranged like the facets of a soccer ball and one of the first and best studied nanoscale structures, has come under scrutiny in recent years over concerns ...

Rice finds 'on-off switch' for buckyball toxicity

Sep 24, 2004

CBEN pioneers method of mitigating nanoparticle toxicity via surface enhancement Researchers at Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) have demonstrated a simple way to reduce the ...

Nanoparticles trigger cell death?

Nov 13, 2008

Nanoparticles that are one milliard of a metre in size are widely used, for example, in cosmetics and food packaging materials. There are also significant amounts of nanoparticles in exhaust emissions. However, very little ...

Recommended for you

Nanosafety research: The quest for the gold standard

Oct 29, 2014

Empa toxicologist Harald Krug has lambasted his colleagues in the journal Angewandte Chemie. He evaluated several thousand studies on the risks associated with nanoparticles and discovered no end of shortc ...

New nanodevice to improve cancer treatment monitoring

Oct 27, 2014

In less than a minute, a miniature device developed at the University of Montreal can measure a patient's blood for methotrexate, a commonly used but potentially toxic cancer drug. Just as accurate and ten ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gunslingor1
5 / 5 (1) Mar 31, 2010
Nanotech is the next revolution, but we must be careful. This is a good study, but anytime someone wants to make or mass produce nanoparticles, we must assess there affects on the environment and animals (including humans).
MNIce
not rated yet Apr 02, 2010
Fullerenes and nanotubes can be found in soot, which most people realize instinctively is not a good thing to ingest (it probably tastes bad, and is irritating to breathe). Perhaps fullerene-type molecules contribute to soot's toxicity, particularly its carcinogenicity.

Senescence is a method for shutting down a damaged cell-division mechanism to prevent cancer without having to immediately destroy the cell. The catch is that the cell can no longer contribute to the growth/rebuild process of the organism, so the aging rate increases. I predict that exposing lab animals to tris-fullerenes will shorten their life spans.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.