But until now it was never really clear why exactly asbestos and similar materials like carbon nanotubes spell such trouble for human cells. As it turns out it is a case of cells biting off more than they can chew.
Too long to swallow
In earlier research scientists have seen cells with long asbestos fibres protruding from them. The fibres clearly hamper a cell in its functioning, but still cells try to ingest the fibres and similar materials at the nanoscale.
The question that arose was why a cell would try to do this with when the fibres are clearly too long to swallow.
Fool you once…
What the new study, presented in Nature Nanotechnology found was that nanotubes usually approach cells at a right angle with their rounded tip first. The receptors on a cells outer membrane recognise this rounded tip as a small sphere, which can potentially contain useful nutrients.
The cell then starts ingesting the nanotube, only realising it is trying to swallow something that is too long by the time it is too late. And that is how you end up with a cell looking like it has been speared.
The cell, being speared and all, then signals for help, triggering an immune response which can cause repeating inflammation.
Medicine delivery system
Recently nanotubes and other nanomaterials have shown promise as vehicles to transport drugs to specific cells or locations in the human body. A system that can drastically decrease the side effects of a wide range of drugs, specifically those used in chemo therapy.
Obviously a delivery system that spears the target it is supposed to cure is less than useful. Discovering the interactions between nanomaterials and cells can help in removing the harmful effects, not just in future medicine, but also in nanomaterials in other products.
© Jorn van Dooren | www.bitsofscience.org