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Iowa Receives Grant to Study Airborne Engineered Nanomaterials

Researchers at the University of Iowa have received $2.06 million funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to study the toxicology of airborne engineered nanomaterials.

[Photo: Dr. Peter Thorne]

Engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) are ultra-small man-made materials such as carbon nanotubes, silica-coated gold particles, graphine, and copper oxide particles that are used in an array of products to provide them with special characteristics including strength, flexibility, anti-microbial activity, and unique optical and electrical properties. Some ENMs serve as tiny packages for drug delivery in the body.

Dr. Peter Thorne, professor and head of occupational and environmental health at the UI College of Public Health, is the primary investigator on the study. His team also includes Drs. Andrea Adamcakova-Dodd and Patrick O’Shaughnessy from the UI College of Public Health along with Dr. Aliasger Salem from the UI College of Pharmacy.

Iowa is one of eight research sites nationwide participating in the study, each examining different aspects of ENM toxicity. The UI site will focus on inhalation of ENMs and developmental toxicology via cell-culture studies and multigenerational studies of laboratory mice.

According to Dr. Thorne, human exposure to ENMs can occur during manufacturing, product use, and disposal, but little is known about the effect on people. “The use of engineered nanomaterials is moving faster than the study of their toxicity,” he says. “By understanding the biological response profiles underlying their toxicity, it will be easier to predict which are likely to be hazardous.

“Our studies seek to determine if inhalation of novel ENMs during pregnancy can interfere with the immune or endocrine systems in ways that may harm the developing fetus,” Thorne says.

The researchers hope a better understanding of the toxicity of ENMs will help establish a framework for improving the safety profile of commercial ENMs and guide their safe and sustainable use.