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NIEHS awards Recovery Act funds to focus more research on health and safety of nanomaterials

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, is increasing its investment in understanding the potential health, safety and environmental issues related to tiny particles that are used in many everyday products such as sunscreens, cosmetics and electronics. The NIEHS will award about $13 million over a two-year period, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to bolster the NIEHS's ongoing research portfolio in the area of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs).

Engineered nanomaterials are very tiny materials about 100,000 times smaller than a single strand of hair. They represent a significant breakthrough in material design and development for industry and consumer products, including stain-resistant clothing, pesticides, tires, and electronics, as well as in medicine for purposes of diagnosis, imaging and drug delivery.

"We currently know very little about nanoscale materials' effect on human health and the environment," said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), an interagency program for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Nanomaterials come in so many shapes and sizes, with each one having different chemical properties and physical and surface characteristics. They are tricky materials to get a handle on. The same properties that make nanomaterials so potentially beneficial in drug delivery and product development are some of the same reasons we need to be cautious about their presence in the environment."

The NIEHS has awarded 13 new two-year grants through the Recovery Act to develop better methods to assess exposure and health effects associated with nanomaterials. Ten of the grants were awarded through the NIH Grand Opportunities program announced in March 2009, and three were funded from the NIH Challenge Grants program. All 13 are aimed at developing reliable tools and approaches to determine the impact on biological systems and health outcomes of engineered materials.

The new awards focus on ensuring that we have reliable and reproducible methods and models to assess exposure, exposure metrics, and biological response to nanomaterials. This research is also essential for the harmonization of research results and forming a scientifically sound basis for hazard assessment, as well as the safe design and development of ENMs.

"There are inconsistencies in the biological effects of ENMs reported in the scientific literature, and a major reason for this is lack of detailed characterization of the physical and chemical properties of the ENMs used in these studies," said Sri Nadadur, Ph.D., program administrator at the NIEHS. "One of our goals is to identify three or four reliable and reproducible test methods using the same ENMs by investigators across different labs."

To accomplish this, the NIEHS brought 36 investigators together on Oct. 20, 2009 in North Carolina, where the NIEHS is headquartered, to identify ENMs, assays and test systems to be utilized in these investigations in a more coordinated and integrated effort.

The NIEHS is establishing an integrated program that will narrow its focus to identify the best methods to evaluate the health effects of nanomaterials through use of cell cultures and animal systems. After the initial meeting, grantees will meet face-to-face twice a year to share information, evaluate progress and determine next steps.

"Recovery Act funds have allowed us to expand our efforts in this important area," said Sally Tinkle, Ph.D., senior science sdvisor at the NIEHS. "We want to be sure that we come away with some better tools to assess the health and safety of nanomaterials." This NIEHS effort focused on nanomaterials supports the goals identified by the National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategy for Nanotechnology-related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research.

In addition to Recovery Act funding, the NIEHS supports grantees across the country working on issues related to nanotechnology. The NIEHS extramural activities are focused on three main areas:

  • The application of nanotechnologies in environmental health research through use of nanomaterials to improve measurements of exposure to other environmental factors, enabling research into the biological effects of exposures and improving therapeutic strategies to reverse the harmful effects of environmental exposures.
  • Understanding the risks associated with accidental or intentional exposure to nanomaterials.
  • Through the Superfund Research Program which authorizes NIH to fund university-based research to conduct the science needed for human health risk assessment and decision-making for remediation of hazardous waste sites, researchers across the country are looking at both the application of nanomaterials for environmental monitoring and remediation, and the health implications associated with their application.

On November 4, 2009, the NIEHS announced a new funding opportunity to address the potential health implications of ENMs. The Request for Applications entitled Engineered Nanomaterials: Linking Physical and Chemical Properties to Biology can be found at

The NIEHS also administers the National Toxicology Program, which is researching the potential human health hazards associated with the manufacture and use of nanomaterials.

The 10 Recovery Act NIH Grand Opportunities grants focusing on engineered nanomaterial safety have been awarded to:

  • James Christopher Bonner, North Carolina State University, Raleigh
  • Edward David Crandall, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
  • Alison Cory Pearson Elder and Gunter Oberdorster, University of Rochester, N.Y.
  • Andrij Holian, University of Montana, Missoula
  • Andre Elias Nel, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Galya Orr, Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, Richland, Wash.
  • Christopher D. Vulpe, University of California, Berkeley
  • Paul K. Westerhoff, Arizona State University, Tempe
  • Frank A. Witzmann and Somenath Mitra, Indiana University, Indianapolis
  • Robert M. Worden, Michigan State University, East Lansing

The three Recovery Act Nanotechnology NIH Challenge Grants have been awarded to:

  • Kent E. Pinkerton, University of California, Davis
  • Timothy R. Nurkiewicz, West Virginia University, Morgantown
  • Wynne K. Schiffer, Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Morgantown, W.Va.

The NIEHS also used Recovery Act funds to support efforts under its Superfund Research Program to determine ways to apply nanotechnology to better detect and evaluate effects on human health, and clean up Superfund chemicals in the environment. The Superfund Worker Education Training Program also provided Recovery Act funding targeting health and safety training.


Contact: Robin Mackar
NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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