Helinor Johnston

Associate Professor

+44 (0)131 451 3303
Room F18
John Muir Building
Heriot-Watt University
Roles and responsibilities

Dr Helinor Johnston is an Associate Professor of Toxicology in the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences.


There are many uncertainties surrounding the potential adverse effects associated with the exposure of humans and the environment to nanomaterials. However, many benefits may be realised through the exploitation of nanomaterials in numerous applications, in diverse sectors. It is therefore necessary to address these uncertainties, so that innovation in this emerging area is not stifled and appropriate control measures can be introduced to manage any identified risks, so that the benefits promised may be realised in a safe manner.

 Helinor specialises in investigation of the hazards posed by nanomaterials to human health and the environment. Current research projects that Helinor is involved with investigate the mechanism of toxicity of a panel of nanomaterials to cells at various target sites, including the immune system (e.g. neutrophils, macrophages), liver (hepatocytes), gastrointestinal tract, CNS and lung. This work involves assessment of the cellular response to nanomaterial exposure, including but not limited to; cell viability, inflammatory responses, oxidative responses, modifications to intracellular signalling and imaging of nanomaterial uptake by cells.  An integral part of her research is the development of alternative models (e.g. in vitro models of varied complexity, zebrafish embryos) to assess nanomaterial safety. More recently, Helinor has also become more interested in testing the efficacy and safety of nanomedicines and assessing the consequences of nanomaterial exposure for bacteria. Helinor also collaborates with ecotoxicologists to investigate the impacts of nanomaterials on aquatic and terrestrial organisms.

Selected publications

Dimakakou E, Johnston HJ, Streftaris G, Cherrie JW. (2018). Exposure to environmental and occupational particulate air pollution as a potential contributor to neurodegeneration and diabetes: A systematic review of epidemiological research. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15 (8). Link

Brown DM, Johnston HJ, Gaiser B, Pinna N, Caputo G, Culha M, Kelestemur S, Altunbek M, Stone V, Chandra Roy J, Kinross JH, Fernandes TF (2018). A cross-species and model comparison of the acute toxicity of nanoparticles used in the pigment and ink industries. NanoImpact 11: 20-32. Link

Johnston HJ, Verdon R, Gillies S, Brown DM, Fernandes TF, Henry TB, Rossi AG, Tran L, Tucker C, Tyler CR, Stone V. (2018). Adoption of in vitro systems and zebrafish embryos as alternative models for reducing rodent use in assessments of immunological and oxidative stress responses to nanomaterials. Critical Reviews in Toxicology 48 (3): 252-271. Link

Ude VC, Brown DM, Viale L, Kanase N, Stone V, Johnston HJ (2017). Impact of copper oxide nanomaterials on differentiated and undifferentiated Caco-2 intestinal epithelial cells; assessment of cytotoxicity, barrier integrity, cytokine production and nanomaterial penetration. Particle and Fibre Toxicology 14 (1); 31. Link

Burden N, Aschberger K, Chaudhry Q, Clift M, Doak SH, Fowler P, Johnston H, Landsiedel R, Rowland J, Stone V (2017). The 3Rs as a framework to support a 21st century approach for nanosafety assessment. Regulatory Toxicology and Phamarcology. 91; 257-266 Link

Kakde D, Powell LG, Bansal KK, Howdle S, Irvine D, Mantovani G, Millar G, Dailey LA, Stone V, Johnston HJ, Alexander C. (2016). Synthesis, characterization and evaluation of in vitro toxicity in hepatocytes of linear polyesters with varied aromatic and aliphatic Co-monomers. J Control Release. 244(Pt B):214-228. Link

Bastos V, Brown D, Johnston H, Daniel-da-Silva AL, Duarte IF, Santos C, Oliveira H. (2016). Inflammatory responses of a human keratinocyte cell line to 10 nm citrate- and PEG-coated silver nanoparticles. Journal of Nanoparticle Research 18: 205. Link

Heusinkveld HJ, Wahle T, Campbell A, Westerink RHS, Tran L, Johnston H, Stone V, Cassee FR, Schins RPF (2016). Neurodegenerative and neurological disorders by small inhaled particles. Neuro Toxicology 56; 94-106.. Link

Donnellan S, Tran L, Johnston H, McLuckie J, Stevenson K, Stone V. (2016) A rapid screening assay for identifying mycobacteria targeted nanoparticle antibiotics. Nanotoxicology 10; 761-9.Link

Johnston H, Brown DM, Kanase N, Euston M, Gaiser BK, Robb CT, Dyrynda E, Rossi AG, Brown ER, Stone V. Mechanism of neutrophil activation and toxicity elicited by engineered nanomaterials. (2015). Toxicol In Vitro. 29(5):1172-84. Link


Dr Helinor Johnston joined Heriot-Watt University as the Deputy Director of the Nano-Safety Group in January 2011.

Prior to joining Heriot-Watt, Helinor was a scientific advisor (2009-2010) in the Chemicals and Nanotechnologies division of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Specifically, she was responsible for research concerned with the environmental impacts of nanomaterials, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Helinor completed a desk based post-doc in 2009, at Edinburgh Napier University, that was concerned with reviewing the available published literature on the toxicity of nanoparticles to humans, through participation in the FP7 funded project ENRHES (Engineered Nanoparticles-Review of Health and Environmental Safety).

Helinor completed her PhD entitled ‘Evaluating the uptake, intracellular fate and functional consequences of hepatocyte exposure, to a range of nanoparticles in vitro’ in 2009 at Edinburgh Napier University. Helinor's PhD was conducted as part of the FP6 funded project PARTICLE_RISK. This project was responsible for assessing the health risks associated with exposure to nanoparticles. The adverse effects of a particle panel, that had varied physico-chemical characteristics was assessed at a number of target sites. She was responsible for determining the impacts of nanoparticle exposure on the liver.

Helinor completed her undergraduate degree at King’s College London, in Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2005.