Due to its huge potential in applications ranging from cheaper vaccinations to energy-storing car panels, there's plenty of excitement surrounding the emergence of nanotechnology. But a team of scientists are urging caution, with a study conducted at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology suggesting that exposure to silicon-based nanoparticles may play a role in the development of cardiovascular disease.

The scientists from the Technion Rappaport Faculty of Medicine, Rambam Medical Center, and the Center of Excellence in Exposure Science and Environmental Health (TCEEH) worked with cultured laboratory mouse cells that resemble the cells of arterial walls, exposing them to nanoparticles made from silicon dioxide. The team was seeking to explore the effects that the nanoparticles have on the development of atherosclerosis, a condition that leads to the hardening of the arteries and cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke.

What the researchers found was a negative relationship between the silicon-based nanoparticles and macrophages, a type of white blood cell that destroys damaged or dead cells. The toxicity of the nanoparticles causes the macrophages to transform into foam cells or lipids, leading to the development of lesions and hastening the onset of atherosclerosis.

"This exposure may be especially chronic for those employed in research laboratories and in high tech industry where workers handle, manufacture, use and dispose of nanoparticles," says the study's lead author, Professor Michael Aviram. "Products that use silica-based nanoparticles for biomedical uses, such as various chips, drug or gene delivery and tracking, imaging, ultrasound therapy, and diagnostics, may also pose an increased cardiovascular risk for consumers as well."

This study isn't the first time concerns have been raised about the dangers of nanotechnology. Operating at a scale of 1-100 nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter), the chemical reactions when dealing with nanotechnology can be somewhat unpredictable. Previous research has turned up some unsettling results, including that silver nanoparticles can materially alter a person's immunity, and that titanium dioxide nanoparticles cause systemic genetic damage in mice.

The researchers warn that adopting a cautious approach is critical in the near-term, with nanotechnology-based consumer products on the rise, a world market they estimate will hit US$3 trillion by 2020.

“This reality leads to increased human exposure and interaction of silica-based nanoparticles with biological systems," write the researchers. "Because our research demonstrates a clear cardiovascular health risk associated with this trend, steps need to be taken to help ensure that potential health and environmental hazards are being addressed at the same time as the nanotechnology is being developed."

The research was published in the journal Environmental Toxicology.