The physicians at the Peking Chaoyang Hospital considered those women peculiar right away. Shortness of breath, pleural effusion and pericardial effusions dictated the clinical picture – and that although those women hospitalized between January 2007 and April 2008 were young and otherwise ‘fit like a fiddle’. They never smoked, and at any rate, the medical history seemed to show no particular risks. But prior to their admittance to the Chinese elite hospital those seven women passed a true odyssey in regard to therapy: From antibiotics to drugs against tuberculosis physicians at other hospitals had tried to cure this curious malaise – to no avail. The increase of the pleural discharge increased so much that the physicians engaged the national epidemic authorities – and they discovered the reason in the end by an exact screening of the women’s personal living conditions.
At their joint working place the women inhaled tiny polyacrylate-nanoparticles which caused the MCA (maximum credible accident) in the body of those patients according to the physicians. Despite the greatest efforts of the Chinese physicians two of the women did not survive the attack of the nanoparticles. Their deaths – that much seems to be clear by now – might cause a global turn-around of risk assessment for nanotechnology.
Never before, scientists succeeded in proving the causal relationship between inhaled nanoparticles and their toxic side effects in humans. In fact animal tests attested the atomic midgets to damage kidneys and liver as well as the lung now and then. They suspected a damaging effect on humans but there was no clinical proof until now.
The Peking ’nano-case’ marks the end of an era of an allegedly safety of a technology which is still one of the most promising of the 21st century. Unaccustomedly open, the Chinese published something frightening physicians in Peking: Inhaled nanoparticles appear to attack inner organs penetrating the cells of the organism deeply. The reader of the original study will inevitably find similarities to Michael Crichton’s bestseller ‘Prey’, a story where nanoparticles assail people – but contrary to Crichton’s story, Peking is reality.
Global change of thinking regarding safety seems to be necessary
For example, did the inhaling of nano-polyacrylate over a period of five months at work lead – besides to the above mentioned disorders – also to lung fibrosis for those women. In addition the researchers found polyacrylates the size of 30 nanometers in the karyo- and cytoplasm of the patients’ lung tissue. And if that wasn’t enough – the nanoparticles also cling to the membrane of the red blood cells – another fact proven in a clinical environment by real patient data for the very first time. The small size of the particles of all things now is giving the physicians a hard time to fight them. “The patients might develop lung fibroses which might resist quite a few forms of therapy”, urges Yuguo Song, author of the study, in the European Respiratory Journal (ERJ) where the study was published August 29, 2009. According to Song, one aspect is particularly delicate: The morbid polyacrylates quasi serve nano-carriers for paints – which were used as an industrially particularly valuable coating in the printing industry. In fact, the range of applications of nanoparticles is enormous – only in 2010 the global market should amount to about 200 billion Euros. The Chinese results might lead to a change of the general framework – here at home as well.
But for now many scientists seem relaxed primarily banking on the therapeutic potential. For example a clinical research team at the Berlin Charité developed a new class of magnetic nanoparticles as contrast media for magnetic resonance imaging. Yet in September 2008, the special attributes of the midgets thrilled even the DFG (German research association): “The new kinds of particles are extraordinarily tiny and have their surface coated which allows these particles to reach those parts of the body to be examined especially targeted”. After the Peking studies we have to look at things in a different light.