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Safety of Nanotechnology Cancer Treatment

In this image, researchers explored the phenotypic changes occurring in tumor cells using 3D spheroid models to evaluate nanoparticle-based delivery. The green fluorescense in this image comes from live cells while the red comes from dead cells and was obtained from a confocal fluorescense microscope.

Credit: National Cancer Institute

Nanotechnology is a powerful tool for combating cancer and is being put to use in other applications that may reduce pollution, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and help prevent diseases. NCI’s Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer is working to ensure that nanotechnologies for cancer applications are developed responsibly.

There is nothing inherently dangerous about being nanosized. Our ability to manipulate objects at the nanoscale has developed relatively recently, but nanoparticles are as old as the earth. Many nanoparticles occur naturally (for example, in volcanic ash and sea spray) and as by-products of human activities since the Stone Age (nanoparticles are in smoke and soot from fire). There are so many ambient incidental nanoparticles, in fact, that one of the challenges of nanoparticle exposure studies is that background incidental nanoparticles are often at order-of-magnitude higher levels than the engineered particles being evaluated.

As with any new technology, the safety of nanotechnology is continuously being tested. The small size, high reactivity, and unique tensile and magnetic properties of nanomaterials—the same properties that drive interest in their biomedical and industrial applications—have raised concerns about implications for the environment, health, and safety (EHS). There has been some as yet unresolved debate recently about the potential toxicity of a specific type of nanomaterial—carbon nanotubes (CNTs)—which has been associated with tissue damage in animal studies. However, the majority of available data indicate that there is nothing uniquely toxic about nanoparticles as a class of materials.

In fact, most engineered nanoparticles are far less toxic than household cleaning products, insecticides used on family pets, and over-the-counter dandruff remedies. Certainly, the nanoparticles used as drug carriers for chemotherapeutics are much less toxic than the drugs they carry and are designed to carry drugs safely to tumors without harming organs and healthy tissue.

To insure that potential risks of nanotechnology are thoroughly evaluated, the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer makes the services of its Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL) available to the nanotech and cancer research communities. The NCL, an intramural program of the Alliance, performs nanomaterial safety and toxicity testing in vitro (in the laboratory) and using animal models. The NCL tests are designed to characterize nanomaterials that enter the bloodstream, regardless of route. This testing is just one part of the NCL's cascade of tests to evaluate the physicochemical properties, biocompatibility, and efficacy of nanomaterials intended for cancer therapy and diagnosis. To date, the NCL has evaluated more than 125 different nanoparticles intended for medical applications.

The NCL works closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) to devise experiments that are relevant to nanomaterials, to validate these tests on a variety of nanomaterial types, and to disseminate its methods to the nanotech and cancer research communities. The NCL also facilitates the development of voluntary-consensus standards for reliably and pro-actively measuring and monitoring environment, health and safety ramifications of nanotech applications.

Whether actual or perceived, the potential health risks associated with the manufacture and use of nanomaterials must be carefully studied in order to advance our understanding of this field of science and to realize the significant benefits that nanotechnology has to offer society, such as for cancer research, diagnostics, and therapy.

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