Nanomaterials in the healthcare sector: The navigation paradox applied to healthcare


Cecilia Van Cauwenberghe from Frost & Sullivan shares her expertise on nanomaterials in today’s healthcare sector, including therapeutic precision versus nanotoxicology risk

The navigation paradox affirms that increased navigational precision may result in increased collision risk. In fact, improved positioning systems have gained significant precision at the expense of a greater probability of occupying the same space on the shortest distance line between two navigational points. According to Drlickova et al., 2017, although nanomedicines potential has revolutionised precision medicine approaches, the unique properties of nanoparticles capable of penetrating inscrutable biological barriers can induce unintended adverse effects on human health and environment, thereby adding some complexity to the balance between therapeutic efficacy due to impressive technological advances and safety due to nanotoxicity issues. Gkika et al., 2018, also depict the conflict between science advocating for the use of high-risk, potentially toxic nanomaterials due to their higher therapeutic target precision and being society reticent to the utilisation of certain nanotechnologies.

Risk assessment and decision-making tools

Chemical and biological risk evaluation, life cycle assessment, safety-by-design, stakeholder engagement and risk governance, among many additional criteria, constitute key items in an effort to address the needs of emerging technologies such as nanomaterials.

The design of new decision support frameworks to assist the solution of the aforementioned paradox has been analysed by Rycroft et al., 2018. The researchers intend to derive a complete characterisation of the risks and benefits that a given nanomaterial may proffer within a specific nanomedical application, based on multicriteria decision analysis. Conscious of the double-edged sword of risks and benefits of nanomedicines, the authors analysed the risks and benefits of a whole decade of nanomedicines development in order to build a valuable, knowledge-based framework focused on nanotoxicology and risk assessment interventions. This tool not only enriches multicriteria decision analysis approaches but also introduces risk-based decision-making and alternatives-based governance criteria for emerging technologies beyond nanomedicines.

The road ahead: Introducing more science

Occupational exposure limits

Specific occupational recommended exposure limits (REL) for nanomaterials are limited. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommend to workers do not exceed the exposure to 1.0 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) as an 8-hour time-weighted average to respirable carbon nanotubes and carbon nanofibres, as an example.

Workplace design optimisation

The NIOSH advice companies for controlling possible exposure of their workers to nanomaterials in the workplace through a series of new workplace design solution documents. These four deliverables strategically help optimise the workplace design to guarantee workers’ safety during nanomaterials handling.

Bioprotective complexes administration

According to a recent publication authored by Leso et al., 2017, challenges faced during nanotechnology translation to the healthcare industry are numerous. The researchers highlight the high level of uncertainty related to the physicochemical properties of nanomaterials regarding potential toxicity, the difficulty in extrapolating dose-response correlations and the complexity in measuring nanomaterial exposure.

However, Privalova et al., 2017, demonstrated that highly adverse effects of metallic nanoparticles at organ-systemic level can be manifestly mitigated by background administration of suitable combinations of bioactive agents in innocuous doses aiming for improving the body’s resistance to the adverse effects of nanoparticles. These bio-protectors principally consist of pectin, vitamins, glutamate, glycine, N-acetylcysteine, omega-3 PUFA and different essential trace elements. They are suggested by the authors as an efficient auxiliary instrument of health risk management, according to the beneficial results exhibiting interference with toxicokinetics and toxicodynamics of metal nanoparticles.

Artificial intelligent solutions

Ponce and Krop, 2018, illustrate the launch of the EU Observatory for Nanomaterials as a form of impact assessment. The broad goal is to build a framework to trace where nanomaterials are being produced and how they are used and how they are disposed of. With the advent of digital technologies, artificial intelligence, robots, new materials and new processes, nanomedicines are supposed to lead significant progress in the industry. Therefore, artificial intelligent and smart healthcare solutions must serve to regulate and provide transparency at all levels of nanomaterials manipulation in order to shape the future of technology synergy over solid health and safety bases.


I would like to thank all contributors from industry involved with the development and delivery of this article, in particular, Bhargav Rajan, Industry Analyst and Debarati Sengupta, Senior Research Analyst, from the TechVision Group at Frost & Sullivan.

Further reading

Gkika, D.A., Magafas, L., Cool, P. and Braet, J., 2018. Balancing nanotoxicity and returns in health applications: The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Toxicology, 393, pp.83-89.

Drlickova, M., Smolkova, B., Runden-Pran, E. and Dusinska, M., 2017. Health Hazard and Risk Assessment of Nanoparticles Applied in Biomedicine. In Nanotoxicology (pp. 151-173).

Leso, V., Fontana, L., Chiara Mauriello, M. and Iavicoli, I., 2017. Occupational risk assessment of engineered nanomaterials: limits, challenges and opportunities. Current Nanoscience, 13(1), pp.55-78.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 2018. Workplace Safety & Health Topics. Nanotechnology.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 2018. Safety and Health Topics. Nanotechnology.

Ponce, A. and Krop, H., 2018. EU Observatory for Nanomaterials: A Constructive View on Future Regulation. Privalova, L.I., Katsnelson, B.A., Sutunkova, M.P., Minigalieva, I.A., Gurvich,

V.B., Makeyev, O.H., Shur, V.Y., Valamina, I.E., Klinova, S.V., Shishkina, E.V. and Zubarev, I.V., 2017. Looking for Biological Protectors against Adverse Health Effects of Some Nanoparticles that Can Pollute Workplace and Ambient Air (A Summary of Authors’ Experimental Results). Journal of Environmental Protection, 8(08), p.844.

Rycroft, T., Trump, B., Poinsatte-Jones, K. and Linkov, I., 2018. Nanotoxicology and nanomedicine: making development decisions in an evolving governance environment. Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 20(2), p.52.

Cecilia Van Cauwenberghe, PhD, MSc, BA

Associate fellow and senior industry analyst

TechVision Group, Frost & Sullivan


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