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Long carbon nanotubes bear an uncanny resemblance to asbestos fibers. More studies will be necessary to determine if they act similarly as a carcinogen.  (Source: Courtesy of Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge.)
Is there a something sinister lurking beneath the promise of nanotechnology? Another study suggests carbon nanotubes may be an unfriendly passenger.

The lauded carbon nanotube (CNT) has been making a name for itself in medical research. With the potential to act as a drug delivery agent, poisonous radiation sink, or any number of other intriguing roles, the plucky fullerene has seen its share of optimism, almost as if it could be a new panacea for complicated medical problems.

DailyTech has covered some of the dangers that may be lurking in the tiny particle. There are many people in various fields that feel that nanotechnology, including CNTs, buckyballs, nanodots and others, does not have enough regulation or research tied to it. It is not well understood what effects these marvels of the modern world may have on the human body. In addition, the past debacle with another substance that didn't garner enough research before its widespread use, asbestos, has put up warning flags for many that are interested in the welfare of people in the world of modern science.

A new set of data, covered recently by BBC News, on the effects of CNTs on human tissues has found that the tubes, when of certain length, have an effect similar to that of the well-known carcinogen, asbestos. The results of the new study, which has been published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, are alarming to some, but experts remain cautious. Very few studies on the interaction of nanotechnology with the body produce matching results and so more research is encouraged to produce a verifiable consensus.

In this most recent group of tests, researchers injected CNTs of varying lengths and wall configurations into the abdomens of laboratory mice. Along with the nanotubes, they injected another group with flat sheets of carbon and a third with asbestos fibers.

The study produced mixed results for the CNTs. While shorter nanotubes produced little to no effect at all, longer, more needle-like tubes produced results exceptionally like that of the asbestos group's. The scientists attribute the reaction to the inability of phagocytes, cells within the lung that handle invasive foreign particles, to deal with long, straight particles -- such as asbestos. At about 20 microns in length, the cells, rather than capturing the particles, seem to freeze, falling into a hyperactive state and causing inflammation, which leads to scar tissue and possibly ultimately cancer.

Another test, similarly using lab mice, but dealing with inhaled CNTs showed that the particles similarly caused inflammation in the lungs. Between one and two months, however, the mice had fully recovered.

As of yet there is still no direct correlation between inhaled, blood-borne or otherwise ingested CNTs and cancer. Tests have not had the allowance of time that similar research with asbestos has.

Many experts caution that much more research is needed on all nanotechnology in general. With very little regulation on nano-production technology, waste management, and occupational hazards, many feel that a time bomb lies under the stunningly rapid advancement of this incredible technology. Some have proposed laws to encourage research and regulate the nanotech industry, though others fear such laws may serve to stifle important research in that avenue.

Regardless of widespread and differing opinions on nanotechnology, one fact is that there are still many things we simply do not understand about the amazing world of nanoparticles.





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