Nanotechnology: The big challenge behind the characterization of the small

Nanomaterials and nanotechnology developments are having an increasingly significant impact on human life, from enabling more targeted cancer treatments to improving the efficacy of vaccines or the delivery of agrochemicals. However, their small size can lead to potentially toxic effects.

To protect human health and the environment, it is crucial that we are able to characterise nanomaterials effectively and understand their behaviour within biological systems. What do we really know about the potential effects when they come into contact with complex matrices and how do we ensure that nanoproducts are safe?

The global market for nanomaterials are estimated by Allied Market Research to have a market value of $14.7 billion in 2015, and some reports forecast that to grow to as much as $55 billion by 2022.

We know that the properties of nanomaterials can change significantly when used in complex matrices, such as biological systems, potentially affecting functionality and behaviour. Nanobiotechnology or nanomedical applications exploit these changes. For example, in some therapeutic applications, protein coated nanoparticles (apolipoprotein E coatings) can target specific locations, such as the brain.

However, there may be other currently unknown biological interactions which could pose a potential risk to human health. These risks are compounded by a lack of robust methods to characterise nanomaterials in complex biological matrices.

AB Still 0003As the NML we have been instrumental in developing new international documentary standards (ISO) to support this field. For example, we provided expert input into a newly released Technical Specification (ISO TS 19590:2017) that outlines a novel method (single particle inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry, spICP-MS) for determining the size distribution and concentration of nanoparticles in aqueous samples. We’ve been invited to provide the UK expert view for a new standard on the analysis of nano-objects using a gentle separation technique (field flow fractionation, ISO TS 21362).

These standards have been produced as a response to the worldwide demand for suitable methods for the detection and characterization of nanoparticles in food and consumer products. In addition, we provided the particle size reference measurements for a new silica reference material (ERM-FD101b) released this year by the European Commission (EC JRC Directorate F (Health, Consumers and Reference Materials). This material will support the implementation of the EC definition of ‘nanomaterial’.

The NML is co-ordinating the first international measurement comparison study between National Measurement Institutes (under the auspices of the CCQM) on the determination of number concentration of nanoparticles (colloidal gold). An interlaboratory comparison using the same material that is open to industrial and academic laboratories with an interest in nanoparticle analysis will be run in parallel through VAMAS (Versailles Project on Advanced Materials and Standards) in collaboration with NPL. This will allow a comparative evaluation across users and measurement institutes and may lead to the development of new international written standards to support regulation around nanoparticles.

LGC’s involvement supporting the development of nanotechnology regulation, and the underpinning standardisation efforts required at both a national and international level, recognises both the individual expertise of our scientists and our reputation in this field.

Our input will help ensure current and future consumer safety and ultimately protect human health and the environment whilst supporting the growth and development of this enabling technology.

You can read more about the work we do in our Annual Review, and have a look through our case studies to learn about our impact.

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