“Nanocanary” Could Spot Dangers

(NHI Nanoblog) LOWELL, Mass.—When Susan Braunhut started thinking about how to detect super-small “nanoparticles,” she turned to an old technology for inspiration: The canary in the coal mine.

What Braunhut (pictured), a professor of biological sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and her research team have come up with has no feathers and won’t chirp a warning to those nearby. But their “nanocanary” might solve a difficult problem for the growing field.

Biologists like Braunhut have a long track record of tracking toxic agents. But, she said during a presentation at the university’s “Destination Nano” conference last week, many of the traditional detection methods either don’t work or take a long time. They also aren’t as informative as they should be, considering the potential for long-term exposure to nanomaterials, she said.

“What we may be most concerned with is low-dose exposures that will be sub-lethal but cumulative,” Braunhut said.

The nanocanary takes an established technology, known as a quartz crystal microbalance, and reinvents it for nanodetection. It basically uses the oscillation of a tiny piece of quartz between electrodes to measure changes in a material—in this case, cells. Once the material has spread evenly over the monitor, scientists can use a computer to analyze the changes over time.

The process takes hours, but Braunhut said she eventually envisions a wearable version of the device that presumably would work more quickly. In addition, once researchers have established a pattern for certain particles, detection could happen faster.

Easy testing is important, she said, because at some point, public awareness of some of the hazards posed by nanotechnology—the red-hot science of using ultratiny particles to create new medical and consumer super-products— is going to grow in the United States. Already, there is discomfort in some circles internationally, especially in Australia, where there have been widespread protests calling for bans on materials using the super-small particles, she said.

“It is a real issue that we need to be able to allay the fears of the public should raised awareness occur,” Braunhut said.

Braunhut’s team found that introducing nanoparticles to the cells creates a distinct reaction, and that more particles increase that reaction. The scientists think that the device could eventually be used as a relatively fast, low-cost way to detect nanoparticles in the environment.

“Cells don’t need to be trained to know that there’s a toxin in their environment,” Braunhut said. “They know.”

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