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Undergrad explores nanoparticle safety

Marissa MacAneney has been toying with an idea for a couple of years: Could nanoparticles be used to create digestible forms of otherwise injected medications — durable enough to withstand stomach acids, yet still be absorbed into the bloodstream?

Medications like the insulin she has injected every day since she was 16.

Now, as a biochemistry and neuroscience major at Binghamton University, she’s taking the first steps: helping to understand how nanoparticles can improve rechargeable batteries.

There’s no disconnect here: The skills and knowledge she’ll acquire working on Assistant Professor Gretchen Mahler’s project can be taken in many directions.

The connection, MacAneney said, is this: Industry leaders are interested in using nanoparticles of vanadium oxide as a cathode in rechargeable lithium ion batteries. “But before they can use nanoparticles in batteries, they need to understand the health effects,” she said, both on production workers making the products and the everyday user.

Vanadium in various forms can help lithium batteries store more energy, discharge more power and recharge faster — perfect for any number of smart energy projects from hybrid-electric or all-electric vehicles to household energy storage.

That is, if it doesn’t harm people. Acute vanadium oxide exposure in its larger form has been linked to increased bronchial infections, pneumonia, inflamed tissues and irritated eyes, throat, lungs and nasal tissue — even nervous disorders and paralysis. The health effects of vanadium oxide nanoparticles have never been studied.

“Our hypothesis is that when these nanoparticles come in contact with epithelial cells, it’ll cause inflammation and absorption,” MacAneney said.

The data will help Mahler and a colleague at the State University of New York at Potsdam to prepare a proposal for grant funding. And it’s a good project to help put a new researcher through her paces, using newly acquired skills from eight weeks of lab training.

“I put them through a pretty rigorous training program,” Mahler said. It weeds out people unsuited to a life of research and keeps the new researcher and her colleagues safe. “She is just starting to dive into the nanoparticle work.”

But understanding how a body can absorb nanoparticles relates directly to McAneney’s interest in medication. Insulin today cannot easily survive gastric acids, making oral insulin impractical.

“But can you encapsulate it in something to protect it?” she asked. “It wouldn’t degrade in the stomach.”

Interesting question, and one McAneney plans to keep asking on her way to a doctorate and perhaps a medical degree, too.

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