Nanoparticles damage DNA? But which type?

Posted by Paul Eubig, DVM at Nov 16, 2009 10:00 PM |

A recent story by the ABC-Australia (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) News begins: “Researchers in the United Kingdom have found some nanoparticles – which can be found in common household items – can damage DNA without even penetrating the cells.”

This is certainly an intriguing beginning. And judging from the spate of comments from the scientific community since the study’s release, the reporter was not alone in finding this story interesting.

However, right there in the first line, the reporter inadvertently muddies the waters in the public’s understanding of this study – and of nanoparticles in general. The problem is that the opening implies that all nanoparticles are alike, when it is really the opposite that is the case.

The nanoparticles examined in the study were cobalt-chromium particles. Cobalt-chromium is an alloy mainly used in artificial joints for people. Those who have undergone joint replacement may be exposed to these specific nanoparticles, but it is a stretch to say cobalt-chromium is found in common household items, as the news story reports.

Nanoparticles are tiny, engineered groups of molecules. They are made from different building blocks, such as silver or carbon atoms.

In recent years, there has been a staggering increase in the kinds of particles manufactured and the number of uses found for them. Nanotechnology is being applied to a wide variety of products, ranging from medical devices to personal care products to athletic socks.

But since each type of nanoparticle is made of different building blocks, each type of nanoparticle can act differently in engineered products as well as in the body. It is true that our frequent exposure to nanoparticles from many consumer products means that some nanoparticles are getting into us. It is also true that cell studies suggest that some types of nanoparticles can damage the DNA or cause cell death in different parts of our bodies, such as the brain, the lungs or blood vessels.

Yet, using the term “nanoparticle” generically, as was done in the beginning of the ABC News story, implies that the findings of DNA damage from the new study apply to all types of nanoparticles. Lumping different types of nanoparticles together fails to acknowledge that each type of nanoparticle can be unique in its actions and effects. In the end, this will only serve to add to the confusion about the highly technical topic of nanotechnology.

With this caveat in mind, consider reading the story. The study has become a hot topic among scientists and, overall, the reporter covers some of the implications of the research very well.