Swansea University leads international project to cut the risk of engineered nanomaterials

A new €12.7m global project led by Swansea University Medical School will address the need for safer and more effective testing of nanomaterials, an area that is of crucial and growing importance to billion-pound markets including cosmetics, electronics, medicine and food.

Exposure to engineered nanomaterials (ENM) poses a risk to human and environmental health. However, at present, the test methods used to assess this risk are inadequate and unrealistic. Current test systems utilise scientific models that lack the detail and complexity of the environment and the human body, and only consider the effects of short-term ENM exposure which does not reflect realistic extended or repeated exposure scenarios.

The Physiologically Anchored Tools for Realistic nanOmateriaL hazard aSsessment (PATROLS) project involves 24 partners, across Europe, the USA and Asia. The scientists aim over the next 3.5 years to establish and standardise a battery of innovative, next-generation safety testing tools that more accurately predict adverse effects caused by long-term ENM exposure in humans and the environment.

Shareen Doak is Professor of Genotoxicology & Cancer at Swansea University Medical School and is leading the project.  She explained: “Nanotechnology promises significant scientific, economic and societal benefits, but commercialisation and growth are threatened by safety uncertainties.

“Several problems currently exist in the field of nanosafety testing as standard hazard identification tests are unreliable for nanomaterials and are based on simple cell systems that do not adequately reflect the complex human body. Additionally, these tests do not predict the consequences of long-term exposure on both human health and the environment.”

PATROLS will address current issues surrounding nanosafety testing by:

  • producing realistic and predictive cultured 3D tissue models of the lung, gastrointestinal tract and liver for ENM safety assessment
  • developing innovative methods for safety assessment in ecologically relevant test systems and organisms, selected according to their position in the food chain
  • characterising ENM under relevant experimental conditions dictated by the advanced human and environmental models developed
  • creating robust computational methods for ENM exposure, dose modelling and hazard prediction.

Professor Doak said: “The cutting-edge models, hazard reporter tests and computational methods developed through PATROLS will allow ENM to be categorised based on their human and environmental risk. The improved predictivity of the tools generated will help to minimise uncertainty in ENM safety. Furthermore, the PATROLS toolbox will provide effective data to support and enhance the current ENM safety evaluation frameworks.”

PATROLS launched on 1 January 2018.  On 29-30 January, the international consortium including academic, industrial, government and risk assessment partners involved in the project will attend a conference at the Waterfront Museum, Swansea to discuss developments.  The Vice Chancellor of Swansea University Professor Richard B Davies will be opening the event.

The grant has been awarded as part of the European Commissions’ Horizon2020 scheme, and is the second time the University has received an award from the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme. The Horizon2020 fund, is a total of €80 billion and will be invested over a seven year period (2014 to 2020).

PATROLS is one of three large European nanomaterial safety projects secured by higher education institutions in the UK.  The GRACIOUS project led by Professor Vicki Stone at Heriot Watt University will allow the risks of groups of nanomaterials to be considered, reducing the need to assess the thousands of materials available on a one-by-one basis.  The BIORIMA project, led by Professor Lang Tran at the Institute of Occupational Medicine will develop new approaches to assess the safety of nanomedicines (nanomaterials which are used to diagnose and treat diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease).

Professor Vicki Stone said: “This is a very exciting time for research into the long-term safety of nanomaterials with the UK playing a key and prominent role in these activities.”

Professor Richard B. Davies, Vice-Chancellor of Swansea University, said: “The multi-million pound project, PATROLS further demonstrates that Swansea University scientists are global leaders in the field of nanotechnology research.  The future potential of nanotechnology is vast , but we also want to ensure that this potential is developed and implemented safely.  Like many of the big challenges in science, little progress can be expected from one university on its own but, by creating an international partnership, this project can address difficult but extremely important issues around the safety of nanotechnology.  Even when dealing with nanoscience and nanotechnology, Swansea University thinks big!”

PATROLS, GRACIOUS and BIORIMA are global projects which include partners across Europe, the USA and Asia, with representatives from academia, industry and Government and have a total value exceeding €25M. These three awards are in addition to two projects already coordinated by the University of Birmingham and a project coordinated by the NERC Centre for Hydrology and Ecology.