A computer simulation shows a buckyball cluster moving through a cell wall, then dispersing inside the cell.  (Source: Peter Tieleman, University of Calgary)
Canadian research points to an unfriendly result of nanoparticle exposure.

One of the hottest topics in science lately, whether it concerns medical, industrial, aerospace, computing or one of a bucket full of various branches of science, is nanotechnology. Though there are any number of nanoparticle-based inventions roaming around and endless numbers of researchers creating new uses and machines every day, the most popular particles are probably the buckyball and carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Between the two pure-carbon particles, it seems like the advancement of anything from cancer treatment to fuel cells will be possible.

Of growing concern lately, however, is how these particles might affect the human body in the long term. CNT-based cancer treatments sound like a wonderful idea, but what happens to all those used up CNTs and what damage might they themselves inflict after destroying those hated cancer cells?

Several groups are proposing stricter controls for nanotechnology and declaring the need for more research into the effects of nanoparticles on humans. One recent study showed that CNTs of a certain length act disturbingly like asbestos particles when they enter the lungs of laboratory rats, either by injection or inhalation.

Last week another group published results of a computer modeled study of what interactions buckyballs, 60 atom carbon molecules shaped like a soccer ball, might have with cells in living beings. Their data has been published in the Advance Online Publication section of the popular Nature Nanotechnology journal as a paper titled “Computer simulation study of fullerene translocation through lipid membranes.”

The group, from the University of Calgary, used the computing power of WestGrid to run their simulations, which involved buckyball clusters interacting with lipid cell membranes. Their simulations found that the molecules were able to dissolve into the cell membrane, passing through it without causing mechanical damage, and reform in the cell's interior. Once inside the cell, the buckyballs could cause damage to the cells.

Peter Tieleman, one of the study's leaders, explains “buckyballs are already being made on a commercial scale for use in coatings and materials but we have not determined their toxicity. There are studies showing that they can cross the blood-brain barrier and alter cell functions, which raises a lot of questions about their toxicity and what impact they may have if released into the environment.”

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