I will start with the obvious question first, what are nanoparticles? Well, the reason they have the name nanoparticle is because they typically have lengths of 1 to 100 nanometers. To give you an idea of the size, it takes roughly 300 million nanometers to make 1 foot of length. These particles are close to the scale of individual molecules, which makes them ideal for all kinds of applications.
The tiny size of these particles means that in some cases the nanoparticle version of the material behaves differently than the normal sized material. For instance, aluminum can "outshine" gold or silver at the nanoparticle level.
What nanoparticles do is more interesting than what they are however. Nanoparticles have found boundless applications to many areas of science, but perhaps the most intriguing area is medicine. Nanoparticles seem to be able to do it all when it comes to medicine. They have been shown to be able to identify where a disease is and even better treat that disease at the site, thereby reducing damage to surrounding regions.
It is this ability that has scientists excited.Cancer could be treated without chemotherapy, for instance, and would not create the same adverse side effects. Another idea that has cropped up is that perhaps one day we will all have nanoparticles roaming our bodies, searching out disease and killing it on contact. This of course would reduce our need to visit the doctor and would allow us to live longer healthier lives.
So are nanoparticles too good to be true? Well maybe they are. In the deluge of excitement over nanoparticles researchers may have overlooked an important detail, at least initially. Are nanoparticles safe to be used in humans? Believe it or not, this topic is being studied nearby at Clarkson University. A research group at Clarkson recently received a sizable grant (over $300,000) to study the effects of nanoparticles on zebrafish.
Why zebrafish? It turns out they have very similar digestive tracks to humans, which means that if they digest nanoparticles they will process them in a similar manner to the way humans do. The initial results have not looked good (although they are certainly not done researching yet as they have just started). It seems that in large quantities nanoparticles are quite toxic, but perhaps worse than that in small quantities nanoparticles led to longer term ailments for the zebrafish.
Of course, if these nanoparticles are hazardous to our health, even in small amounts, this has profound implications. Not only would this mean that the grand plan of having nanoparticles roam our bodies will have to be altered, other things would have to change as well. Nanoparticles have also found their way into products that we use such as suntan lotion, lipstick, deodorants and other products. Certainly the producers of these products would have to change the products to make us consumers more safe.
As I mentioned this study is far from over, and even if it turns out that some nanoparticles are harmful, it does not necessarily mean that they all are. But if there is a lesson to be learned here it is that you can't be too excited about something until it has truly proven its worth.
Jeremie is a Wilmington resident and Clarkson University graduate student. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.