Dr Hermann Stamm
Nanotechnology is a broad term that covers a wide spectrum of research interests. Scientists are working at the nanoscopic scale to develop new technologies in electronics, engineering, healthcare, agriculture and many other fields. As with the emergence of any new technology, nanotechnology presents a challenge for policymakers: How can they keep pace with the research community’s rapid rate of advancement?
It is our job to identify limits pertaining to when nanomaterials should be considered harmful. Often, this is a question of exposure. There are many substances that are hazardous, but if you are not exposed to them, there is no risk. If you are dealing with a potentially hazardous material, your exposure to that material must be limited in order for it to be safely and properly utilised.
Dr Hermann Stamm
Take, for example, the issue of consumer protection. Nanomaterials are becoming more and more present in food and cosmetic products, and it is the responsibility of authorities to ensure that these products are safe for the market. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) has a unit dedicated to research in the area of nanobiosciences. Its staff develop new and innovative methods for the detection and safety assessment of nanomaterials.
I asked Dr Hermann Stamm, the head of this unit, to explain more about the nanomaterials research that is currently under way at the JRC.
"Within the field of nanotechnology, we are looking specifically at nanomaterials," he explained. "We are interested in the presence of nanomaterials in consumer products and the safety assessment of these materials. More and more nanomaterials are appearing in consumer products, so for legislative purposes, we need to develop analytical methods for their detection. Such methods must be fit for the purpose and we are working to validate measurement methods so that other parties such as national control laboratories can reliably detect and assess nanomaterials in real consumer products.
"Individual methods for detection and assessment already exist. However, we need to develop methods for testing products throughout Europe. Enforcement laboratories, regardless of the country in which they are situated, should always find the same results. For this reason, we need to develop consistent methods that can be used across the board."
Dr Stamm went on to discuss the safety assessment methods that are being developed at the JRC’s nanobiosciences unit.
"It is very important for us to not only concentrate on developing detection techniques, but also to devise methods for the safety assessment of nanomaterials," he said. "In light of this, we are creating standardised protocols for toxicity testing, concentrating on in vitro
methods. We want to better understand how nanomaterials interact with organic substances, such as biological fluids, proteins, etc. It is important for us to learn more about the mechanisms of toxicity involved in nanomaterials.
"Authorities require the ability to judge the safety of products containing nanomaterials. Of course, this ability will comprise several methods. As I have said, we are currently looking at in vitro
, biological testing methods in addition to in vivo
methods. If these can be combined in a tiered approach, it will be possible for third parties to come to a conclusive final judgement whether or not a product is safe.
"It is our job to identify limits pertaining to when nanomaterials should be considered harmful. Often, this is a question of exposure. There are many substances that are hazardous, but if you are not exposed to them, there is no risk. If you are dealing with a potentially hazardous material, your exposure to that material must be limited in order for it to be safely and properly utilised. It is therefore necessary to have the right methods in place to define these limits."
Photograph showing the Asymmetric Field Flow Fractionation System being used for the detection and size separation of nanoparticle mixtures in dispersions
The main purpose of nanobiosciences research at the JRC is to develop standardised detection and assessment methods for use across Europe. As Dr Stamm explained, it is therefore vital for his work to include collaborative elements.
"Following its mission, the JRC must provide policy advice to regulators," he said. "In our case, these are the Directorate-Generals of the Commission, such as DG Environment, DG Enterprise and DG SANCO. If you want to look at substances such as nanomaterials, you must first define what nanomaterials are. Moreover, this must be a definition that is appropriate for legislative purposes. Due to our research, we are well placed to help policymakers adequately define nanomaterials.
"We are also involved in the provision of policy reports concerning issues such as the impact of engineered nanomaterials on health, for which we established a close cooperation with the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC).
"In addition, we enjoy excellent working relationships with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The OECD has established the Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials, and the ISO is interested in developing standards relating to the characterisation of nanomaterials. Indeed, characterisation could play a vital role in the assessment of nanomaterials."
In collaboration with many national and international organisations, Dr Stamm and his colleagues at the JRC are working hard to keep pace with advancements in the field of nanomaterials. Understandably, however, when I asked about the timeframe in which universal detection and assessment methods could be made available, Dr Stamm decided to air on the side of caution.
"I think that this could still take a bit of time," he explained. "It will depend upon the intermediate solutions that are identified, as it often takes a while to refine methods for future applications. It is possible that validation for some simple systems could take place within a year. For more complicated detection and assessment methods, it could take a little while longer."