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Toxicity of nanomaterials

Published on 18 March 2021

Marie Carrière

Because of their large specific area and their novel physical and chemical properties, nanoparticles and nanomaterials are used in a variety of daily-life products. This raises the question of their potential impact on human health and the environment. Research at CIBEST seeks to understand and anticipate the effects of nanomaterials on living organisms.

The studied nanomaterials are either pollutants released from industrial processes or at the end-of-life of nanoproducts, food additives containing nanoparticles or biomaterials developed for medical purposes. They are composed of metals, metal oxides or alloys, but also carbon nanomaterials and organic materials such as lipidic, polymeric formulations or plastic particles. The whole life cycle of the nanomaterial is considered, from their synthesis to their end-of-life, by exposing them in climatic chambers that reproduce the solar spectrum in day/night condition, in various matrices, as encountered in the environment or in the human body. The mechanisms underlying the impact of pristine and weathered nanomaterials are decrypted, making possible the anticipation of their toxic effects in realistic environmental conditions. This provides key information for the development of future safer-by-design nanomaterials. On these topics, CIBEST collaborates with chemists who modulate the composition and formulation of nanomaterials according to the recommendations resulting from these toxicological evaluations, moving forward step by step towards nanomaterials that are safer for humans and the environment. The multiplicity of tested conditions (various weathering conditions, various matrices, various compositions) is possible thanks to the use of a platform for high-throughput screening of nanomaterial impact on mammalian cells, based on high content analysis for evaluating their cyto- and genotoxicity, as well as their impact on cellular oxidative and inflammatory profile.

This research is conducted on in vitro cell models and when necessary in vivo experiments are performed in cooperation. A particular attention is paid to the implementation of the most relevant models and realistic exposure modalities. Thus, primary cells from patients, co-cultures of cell lines that are models of healthy patients or cell lines genetically modified to present susceptibility to certain pathologies are used as well as advanced models such as 3D organoids. Since the main target organs for the toxic effects of nanomaterials are the skin, intestine, liver and lung, our research focuses on such models, which are exposed either acutely (short time, high concentration, mimicking accidental exposure) or repeatedly (long time, low concentration, mimicking chronic lifelong exposure).

Nanomaterials may affect living organisms either directly or through their propensity to adsorb pollutants on their surface and to transport them throughout human body or the environment. This is why understanding the effects of co-exposure to mixtures of nanomaterials and other toxic substances (PAHs, metals, genotoxic models etc.) is also one of the main lines of our research. This is particularly important for nanomaterials having a large specific surface area and adsorptive capacity, such as silica particles or micro- and nanoplastics.

Our expertise, ranging from biology to chemistry, including analytical chemistry and physico-chemical analysis, is a key asset to tackle this highly multidisciplinary field of research.