RMIT researchers are pioneering new imaging techniques to examine the safety implications of nanotechnology.
Associate Professor Paul Wright from the talks about the various uses of nanotechnology and his research into nanosafety in a new <span style="font-size
The coordinator of the research networks NanoSafe Australia and Asia Nano Safe, Associate Professor Wright also leads the Nanosafety Research Group at RMIT.
"What we are all trying to do in this new area of nanosafety is actually to take a safety-by-design approach when we develop nanomaterials for use in many applications, and also in industries that produce nano-enabled products," he says.
"It is a relatively new discipline of science, but people have been working with nanoparticles and nanomaterials for a very long time.
"Even the ancient Romans were using nanoparticles of gold and silver to get special light effects in their glass cups and chalices."
A nanoparticle is a very small particle where all three dimensions are between one and 100 nanometres (1nm is 1,000,000 times smaller than a millimetre).
Associate Professor Wright says nanoparticles have a very important role to play in Australia, particularly in sunscreens to protect us against harmful ultraviolet radiation that can affect our immune system, and cause sunburns, DNA damage and cancer.
Recent research by his team, which includes Dr Bryce Feltis, looked at human immune cells and how they handled sunscreen nanoparticles, using the cutting-edge imaging technologies of the Australian Synchrotron.
"For the first time we could look at zinc oxide nanoparticles dissolving and being handled quite well inside the human immune cells that clean up particulates in the body," Associate Professor Wright says.
"These were specifically zinc oxide nanoparticles that you would commonly see in sunscreens.
"We tracked where the nanoparticles were going and being taken up by the cells, and then dissolved and handled quite well. So that definitely helped dispel some of the perceived risks of using zinc oxide nano sunscreen.
"But we've also done a lot of research on human skin cells in culture being co-exposed to sunscreen nanoparticles and UV light, to look at how they handled them.
"Overall, we have found that sunscreen nanoparticles of zinc oxide and rutile titanium dioxide are as well tolerated as the conventional organic chemical sunscreens in our human cell test systems.
"In the case of zinc oxide nano sunscreens, they're very good to use because they are very effective - they're probably the best and the most effective sunscreen on the market at the moment, and they're definitely safe to use.
"It's important for us to get these messages out, particularly if it concerns public health, so we've been spreading the message to the government, industry, and the public ever since."
Dr Feltis, a Research Fellow in the School of Medical Sciences, was co-first author of the recent article on this work in the international journal ACS Nano.
Because the area of nanotechnology is so broad and nanoparticles can be made from many different materials, not all nanoparticles are alike and not all of them are hazardous, Associate Professor Wright says, meaning that safety implications depend heavily on context.
"There's been concern about certain types of carbon nanotubes and a lot of research is being undertaken about its applications," he says.
"But not all carbon nanotubes are alike and many are reasonably biocompatible, which means the body can tolerate their presence reasonably well.
"There's a lot of work in areas such as the bionic eye and the bionic ear where they can use a whole range of different nanomaterials to make smaller, more compact, and safer devices that people can use to enhance their hearing and eyesight."
Associate Professor Wright says he has also seen breakthroughs in the use of nanotechnology in applications such as sustainable energy, making solar panels far more efficient, and also in delivering very specific doses of anti-cancer drugs.
"Through more research and development, we may be able to see future uses of nanotechnology in areas such as medical diagnostics, in helping people regain their senses, in purifying water for Australia's water security, smart clothing to generate energy for electronics, and much more."
Although safety and protection for workers around nanotechnology, consumers, and the environment is an integral part of Associate Professor Wright's research, it is also extremely important to relay these messages to the public.
"Some scientists have difficulty communicating with people outside of their field, however I think we all have a responsibility to impart the information that we find, particularly if it has an important public health message," he says.
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