Is treatment making it worse? DNA damage to brain cells can be caused by nanoparticles from medical treatments
04/29/2018 // Edsel Cook // Views

Nanoparticles are seeing use in an increasingly large number of medical procedures and treatment methods. However, Irish researchers are concerned that their use might be doing far more harm than good. They report that metal nanoparticles could be damaging the DNA of developing brain cells like neurons, according to an article by NanoWerk.

According to researchers from the Trinity College Dublin and the University of Bristol, when metal nanoparticles come into contact with cellular barriers, they unleash cellular messengers that trigger the destruction of cells. Their paper on this matter can be found in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

This unforeseen side effect comes as a massive blow to drugs that rely on nanoparticles to treat neurodegenerative conditions. These heavy use of metal nanoparticles might be aggravating Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease instead of treating them. (Related: Antibacterial book made from nanoparticles of silver and copper cleans water in Third World.)

Nanoparticles are so tiny that they can fit inside the cellular pathways of organisms. This ability to take quick and precise shortcuts to their targets makes them perfect for drug treatment, chemotherapy, medical diagnostics, and imaging.

However, nanoparticles inadvertently change the signaling pathways and processes of the cells that they directly enter and pass through. Furthermore, their potential negative effects are not limited to the cells directly exposed to them. Nearby cells start exhibiting the same degraded effects as the affected cells.


Small but terrible metal nanoparticles trigger DNA damage

In their experiment, the researchers grew a layer of BeWo cells on a pore-laden membrane. BeWo cells are often used as a way to simulate the placental barrier of pregnant women.

Cobalt chromium nanoparticles were applied to this cell barrier model. The medium beneath the barrier was gathered up and put on cultures of human brain cells. According to reports, the brain cells exhibited damaged DNA.

Furthermore, the researchers also exposed pregnant mice to the metal nanoparticles in order to determine the specific part of the brain affected by the particles. When they analyzed the brains of the newly born offspring, they discovered damage to the baby rats' hippocampi, the part of the brain that governs learning and memory.

According to their analysis, the nanoparticles passed through a certain cellular pathway in the cells in the human and rat barriers associated with autophagy. While a normal physiological process, autophagy also involves the destruction of old cells to make way for new ones.

When the nanoparticles used that pathway, they triggered messenger molecules like IL-6 that harmed the DNA of astrocytes and neurons, two types of important brain cells. Blocking either the autophagy process or the IL-6 molecule reduced the damage to the DNA, confirming the ultimate source of the problem are the nanoparticles.

The experiment results show that nanoparticles exert hitherto unknown indirect effects on cells. This should be kept in mind by health professionals who have been evaluating their safety based on their direct effects.

Astrocytes might be key to neuron health

Astrocytes took on even more importance during the nanoparticle experiment. The most numerous type of cell in the brain, astrocytes perform numerous roles in the central nervous system. Their ubiquitous presence gave them significant influence over nearby neurons.

According to lead author and neuroscience expert Maeve Caldwell, media from nanoparticle-affected cell barriers only caused damage to neurons if there were astrocytes nearby. She also notes that stressed astrocytes showed themselves capable of damaging the DNA of neighboring neurons.

Caldwell believes astrocytes are an important factor in neuron health. She suggests that future studies could consider these star-shaped cells as possible targets for treatment procedures of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease.

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