Safety assessment for nanotechnology and nanomedicine: concepts of nanotoxicology


Günter Oberdörster DVM, PhD, Department of Environmental Medicine, University of Rochester, 601 Elmwood Avenue, Med. Ctr. Box 850, Rochester, NY 14642, USA.
(fax: 585 256 2631; e-mail:


Nanotechnology, nanomedicine and nanotoxicology are complementary disciplines aimed at the betterment of human life. However, concerns have been expressed about risks posed by engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), their potential to cause undesirable effects, contaminate the environment and adversely affect susceptible parts of the population. Information about toxicity and biokinetics of nano-enabled products combined with the knowledge of unintentional human and environmental exposure or intentional delivery for medicinal purposes will be necessary to determine real or perceived risks of nanomaterials. Yet, results of toxicological studies using only extraordinarily high experimental doses have to be interpreted with caution. Key concepts of nanotoxicology are addressed, including significance of dose, dose rate, and biokinetics, which are exemplified by specific findings of ENM toxicity, and by discussing the importance of detailed physico-chemical characterization of nanoparticles, specifically surface properties. Thorough evaluation of desirable versus adverse effects is required for safe applications of ENMs, and major challenges lie ahead to answer key questions of nanotoxicology. Foremost are assessment of human and environmental exposure, and biokinetics or pharmacokinetics, identification of potential hazards, and biopersistence in cells and subcellular structures to perform meaningful risk assessments. A specific example of multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) illustrates the difficulty of extrapolating toxicological results. MWCNT were found to cause asbestos-like effects of the mesothelium following intracavitary injection of high doses in rodents. The important question of whether inhaled MWCNT will translocate to sensitive mesothelial sites has not been answered yet. Even without being able to perform a quantitative risk assessment for ENMs, due to the lack of sufficient data on exposure, biokinetics and organ toxicity, until we know better it should be made mandatory to prevent exposure by appropriate precautionary measures/regulations and practicing best industrial hygiene to avoid future horror scenarios from environmental or occupational exposures. Similarly, safety assessment for medical applications as key contribution of nanotoxicology to nanomedicine relies heavily on nano-specific toxicological concepts and findings and on a multidisciplinary collaborative approach involving material scientists, physicians and toxicologists.