Multimillion-pound project to improve the safety of nanomaterials

Multimillion-pound project to improve the safety of nanomaterials

Heriot-Watt University will lead a multi-million global project that will assess the risks of nanomaterials and develop an approach to minimise the harm they may pose to humans or the environment.

A team from the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences will coordinate GRACIOUS, a project involving 23 partners from the UK, US and Asia. The aim is to reduce the need to assess individually the risks posed by the thousands of nanomaterials used in a multitude of products including clothing, medicines, cosmetics and electronics, by building a framework which allows decisions on nanomaterial safety to be made. The research is being funded by the European Commissions’ Horizon2020 scheme.

Professor Vicki Stone, Director of Nano-Safety Research Group, said: “Nanomaterials are hundreds of times smaller than the width of a human hair and can be made from many different elements. Because they can vary in terms of size, shape and other characteristics, tens of thousands of different nanomaterials can be produced, making it challenging to assess each individually.

“Nanotechnology promises significant benefits. Materials can be made stronger, lighter, more durable and more reactive among many other traits. Many products that are in daily use already rely on nanoscale materials but the growth of this industry is threatened by safety uncertainties.

“To ensure that nanomaterials are safely used, their toxicity needs to be assessed. As regulators are now more receptive to non-animal, alternative models of assessing safety, we are developing a framework based on predictions about the toxicity of nanomaterials. This will be achieved by grouping those with similar properties that have already been assessed. 

“By building a framework, in partnership with industry and regulators, we can make decisions about the safety of tens of thousands of different nanomaterials without individually testing each one.   Given the close partnership in this project between scientists, regulators and industry, we anticipate the framework will be used widely once developed.

“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.”

Heriot-Watt University will be working closely with industry including chemical companies BASF and Unilever on the development of the framework. 

GRACIOUS is one of three large European nanomaterial safety projects being led by institutions in the UK. The Heriot-Watt team is also a partner in PATROLS, led by Swansea University. This project will establish and standardise a battery of innovative, next-generation safety testing tools that more accurately predict the adverse effects caused by long-term engineered nanomaterial exposure in humans and the environment.

The team will also work on the BIORIMA project, led by the Institute of Occupational Medicine, which will develop new approaches to assess the human and environmental safety of nanomedicines which are used to diagnose and treat diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. 

Professor John Underhill, Chief Scientist at Heriot-Watt University, said: “This multi-million pound investment in nanotechnology research is a demonstration of the potential and importance of international collaboration in research in general and this exciting research theme in particular. At Heriot-Watt University, we pride ourselves on being an international university with a global outlook, finding solutions to challenges with wide ranging applications. Our cutting-edge research into nanomaterials and toxicity could have wide reaching economic benefits to a range of industries worldwide.” 

GRACIOUS, PATROLS and BIORIMA are global projects which include partners across Europe, the USA and Asia, with representatives from academia, industry and Government. They have a total value exceeding €25 million.