New Method to Identify Nanoparticles in Tissue May Shed Light on their Health Impact

A team of researchers from Stony Brook University, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, and George Washington School of Medicine have demonstrated a pioneering method for the rapid visualization and identification of engineered nanoparticles in tissue. The research, detailed in a paper published in Microscopy Research and Technique, is a cost-effective hyperspectral imaging method for nanomaterial analysis that may shed light on nanomaterials’ potential health impacts.

As nanoparticles are increasingly incorporated into industrial processes and consumer products, studying the potential effects of exposure is critical to ensure the health and safety of workers, consumers, and the environment. In particular, the semiconductor industry utilizes metal oxide nanoparticles in a fabrication process, which has been identified by the industry as a critical area for health and safety research due to the potential for worker exposure.

In the paper, titled “Hyperspectral Imaging of Nanoparticles in Biological Samples: Simultaneous Visualization and Elemental Identification,” the researchers were able to detail how they located metal oxide nanoparticles in an ex vivo porcine skin tissue model of cutaneous exposure.

Molly Frame, PhD, Associate Professor and Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Stony Brook University, and a co-author on the paper, provided all the tissue samples that were imaged for the research. The imaging procedures were led and completed by Sara Brenner, MD, and colleagues at SUNY Polytechnic Institute.


Nanoparticles are not visible by standard microscopy. The left image shows that ceria nanoparticles on the surface of the skin (S. corneum) are simply not visible. Improvements in microscopy, such as enhanced dark field microscopy, enabled the research team to image very dense areas of the metal oxide, ceria oxide. The newer technology, hyperspectral imaging, enabled them to not only visualize the nanoparticles in lower density but also the elemental confirmation that it is ceria being viewed, and not a different element.

“Our findings were made possible through this unique collaboration, and the journal recognized them as highly significant in the area of nanotechnology research,” said Dr. Frame. “By laying the groundwork for the most efficient means with which to visualize nano materials in great detail, we are able to better evaluate the health implications of these particles as they come into contact with humans in the work environment and beyond, potentially paving the way for enhanced measures that can ensure health and safety in the workplace.”

Dr. Frame explained that in order for the tissue to be imaged, her Stony Brook Biomedical Engineering lab created a low volume Franz chamber system for exposure to the nanometal oxides. Key to the creation of this novel chamber is that its low volume aspect enabled very small amounts of the toxic nanometals to be used to test dermal penetration of the materials, a necessary step for the imaging. The chambers used were the invention of a departmental senior design team.

Dr. Brenner, Assistant Professor of Nanobioscience and Assistant Vice President for NanoHealth Initiatives at SUNY Poly, and corresponding author of the study, believes that the novel nanoparticle imaging method is a great improvement on standard methods and one with great promise.

“The current gold standard for visualization of nanoparticles in tissue samples is electron microscopy, which is highly time- and resource-intensive,” said Dr. Brenner. “Availability of an alternative, rapid, and cost-effective method would relieve this analytical bottleneck, not only in nanotoxicology, but in many fields where nanoscale visualization is critical. New and emerging analytical methods and tools for nanomaterial detection, visualization, and characterization must keep pace with innovation in terms of nanomaterial development, use, and commercialization,” she explained.

“Therefore, forms of higher-throughput screening and direct visualization technology, such as this one, must be leveraged for studying not only nanomaterial behavior in biological systems, but also applied in the context of exposure assessment. The system has great versatility and high practical utility – we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what it can do,” she concluded.

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