April 7, 2004 3:55 PM PDT

Nanotech health probe gets funding boost

The Department of Defense has provided a grant to researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center to further probe the health risks of nanotechnology, a growing concern in the industry.

Gunter Oberdorster, professor of toxicology and director of the university's EPA Particulate Matter Center, has already completed one study showing that inhaled nano-size particles accumulate in the nasal cavities, lungs and brains of rats.

This sort of particulate buildup could lead to inflammation and the risk of central nervous system disorders, researchers say. Oberdorster's study is scheduled to appear in the May issue of Inhalation Toxicology.

"I'm not advocating that we stop using nanotechnology, but I do believe we should continue to look for adverse health effects," Oberdorster said in a statement.

The $5.5 million grant will be used to develop models to predict the toxicity of certain nanoparticles over a five-year period. Two other universities will also be involved in the project.

Overall, the government is providing close to $3.7 billion to fund nanotechnology initiatives during the next four years. Most of the grants will be related to developing new materials and products, but the funds will be used to study adverse health risks.

Health risks are a rising concern for the nascent industry. Nanotechnology largely revolves around creating designer molecules that can conduct electricity or detect cancer cells for clinical purposes.

The size of the particles poses health risks because the particles could accumulate in a person's body and create problems over time, some say. While a good number of future nanoparticles will be embedded into other products, such as plastic panels, critics argue that humans who work in plants can be endangered, similar to how asbestos workers were sickened.

Some have also proposed using nanoparticles for environmental cleanup jobs or to deliver drugs inside the body. So far, the research pointing toward health risks is far from conclusive.

The scientific community recognizes these potential problems, but opinions vary on how to tackle them. During a debate earlier this year at the dedication of the Molecular Foundry, a multimillion-dollar facility at the University of California at Berkeley, some researchers worried that public fears could crimp funding, just as stem cell research has been impacted. Others, though, said that the concerns need to be addressed.


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