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

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.