Nano-Safety Research Group: Human Health

The Nano-Safety Research Group, led by Prof. Vicki Stone, Dr Helinor Johnston and Prof. Teresa Fernandes specialises in the assessment of hazards posed by nanomaterials to human health and the environment. Nanotechnology involves the development and use of materials and objects at the nanoscale (1-100nm). To put the size range of interest into perspective, the size of nanomaterials is comparable to that of the molecules that make up cells, like DNA and proteins. Nanomaterials can exist naturally in the environment, however there has been an increase in the intentional production of nanomaterials over recent years. These 'engineered nanomaterials' are being made and developed because substances change their properties when they are so small. The term nanomaterial actually refers to a diverse group of materials that vary in their physical and chemical properties, such as their size, composition, shape and charge. These properties make nanomaterials useful for the development of a wide variety of new products including medicines, food additives, cosmetics, food packaging, electronics, sports equipment and clothing.

Due to the widespread use of nanomaterials, it is critical to identify any potential risks they may pose to human health or the environment. Current research suggests that some nanomaterials are relatively safe while others are more harmful, and it appears that this is linked to the different physical and chemical properties of each nanomaterial. The current uncertainties surrounding nanomaterial risk mean that research is required into nanomaterial safety. Addressing these knowledge gaps will help to ensure that innovation in the rapidly developing area of Nanotechnology is not stifled by concern, but instead by determining risks associated with nanomaterials we can promote the safe, sustainable and responsible use of this technology.

The research conducted by the Nano-Safety Research Group aims to determine whether different types of nanomaterials can cause adverse effects following human exposure. As nanomaterials are incorporated into a variety of different products it is expected that exposure will occur in occupational, consumer and environmental settings via inhalation (lungs), ingestion (gut), injection (blood) and dermal application (skin). Accordingly our research group evaluates the hazards (toxicity) posed by nanomaterials following exposure via different routes, at the exposure site and a number of secondary target sites due to the ability of nanomaterials to become quite widely distributed in the body following exposure (e.g. lung, gut, liver, kidneys, immune system). Aligning nanotoxicology testing with the 3Rs principles of scientific research (the reduction, refinement and replacement of animal use) is a key are of our research activities. We also investigate the efficacy and toxicity of nanomedicines that improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease and infectious disease (e.g. TB).

Funding for our research comes from various sources including the European Commission (Horizon 2020), UKRI (e.g. BBSRC, NC3Rs), charities and industry. The following ongoing projects investigate the toxicity of nanomaterials to human health:

Project Funder Website
GRACIOUS: Framework for grouping and read-across of nanomaterials/nanoforms for regulatory risk assessment and safe-by-design Horizon 2020
PATROLS: Physiologically Anchored Tools for Realistic nanOmateriaL hazard aSsessment Horizon 2020
BIORIMA: BIOmaterial RIsk MAnagement Horizon 2020
Developing alternative models to evaluate the impact of nanomaterials on neutrophils during the stimulation and resolution of inflammation NC3Rs
Investigation of the toxicity of mineral clays BYK/ Altana  
SAVE: Single-Administration Vaccine Enhancement *Led by Ferry Melchels BBSRC

We were previously involved in the following EU projects: SUN, MARINA, BioBeauty, ITS-NANO, ENRHES, Quality Nano, NanoImpact Net, NanoSolutions, FutureNanoNeeds, NANoREG, Nanomicex, and PARTICLE_RISK The Nano Safety Research Group has been funded previously by UK national funding bodies and Government (e.g. NERC, EPSRC, MRC, BBSRC, Defra), industry (e.g. UniLever, ECFIA, GSK), charities (e.g. the Colt Foundation) and NGOs (e.g. PETA).

Key information

Vicki Stone

Helinor Johnston

Teresa Fernandes