The Enforced Idleness of Nanoparticle Toxicologists

My esteemed (and allegedly cute) colleague Dexter Johnson comments on a number of recent nanoparticle toxicity projects and wonders what is the point of them. I’ve often asked the same question (and been asked to leave the room as a result), but there does seem to be a weird academic bias towards reviews and public consultation and I think I know why.

On several occasions when I’ve been in a bar with eminent toxicologists they have admitted that there is absolutely no way that we could ever understand the toxicology of every kind of nanoparticle, and there is no point in trying. What you can do is draw broad conclusions, so that if we have a high aspect ratio structure such as a long carbon nanotube we know that it won’t be cleared by an alveolar macrophage etc, and then we usually get into a discussion about whether anyone is ever likely to inhale enough of the stuff to have a problem, given that we treat most nanomaterials with rather more caution than we did asbestos.

So for most toxicologists the choice is clear. Get paid to do some science or sit about for a bit?

When toxicologists ask for a global well funded long term study to allow the modelling of the interaction of various categories of nanomaterials with the environment, the funding agencies can only manage rustle up a few hundred thousand euros for a two or three year project. That gets you nowhere in understanding a new and rapidly emerging class of materials, so we just end up paying great scientists to sit on their backsides and browse the web for a few years.

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