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NIEHS Awards Recovery Act Funds for Research on Health and Safety of Nanomaterials

By Robin Mackar
December 2009

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NIEHS plans to increase 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. The Institute will award approximately $13 million over a two-year period, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (http://www.niehs.nih.gov/recovery/index.cfm), to bolster the NIEHS's ongoing research portfolio in the area of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs).

ENMs 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' effects on human health and the environment," said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). "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."

The new awards focus on ensuring that the Institute has 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."

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

The NIEHS also used Recovery Act funds to support efforts under its Superfund Research Program to determine ways to apply nanotechnology to better detect and evaluate effects on human health, and clean up Superfund chemicals in the environment. The Superfund Worker Education Training Program also provided Recovery Act funding targeting health and safety training.

(Robin Mackar is the news director in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Awardees

The 10 Recovery Act NIH Grand Opportunities grants focusing on engineered nanomaterial safety have been awarded to:

  • James Christopher Bonner, North Carolina State University, Raleigh
  • Edward David Crandall, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
  • Alison Cory Pearson Elder and Gunter Oberdorster, University of Rochester, N.Y.
  • Andrij Holian, University of Montana, Missoula
  • Andre Elias Nel, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Galya Orr, Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, Richland, Wash.
  • Christopher D. Vulpe, University of California, Berkeley
  • Paul K. Westerhoff, Arizona State University, Tempe
  • Frank A. Witzmann and Somenath Mitra, Indiana University, Indianapolis
  • Robert M. Worden, Michigan State University, East Lansing

The three Recovery Act Nanotechnology NIH Challenge Grants have been awarded to:

  • Kent E. Pinkerton, University of California, Davis
  • Timothy R. Nurkiewicz, West Virginia University, Morgantown
  • Wynne K. Schiffer, Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Manhasset, N.Y.


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