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Carbon nanotubes may pose cancer risk

Carbon nanotubes used in manufacturing could pose the same cancer risk as asbestos, Edinburgh researchers suggest.

Findings highlight the potential risks of being exposed to carbon nanotubes, used in the manufacture of incredibly strong but lightweight materials. The study could offer new insights into the early stage development of cancer caused by asbestos fibres, which are a similar size and shape.

Carbon nanotubes have a long, hollow structure with a diameter about 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, but can reach up to several centimetres long. 

Lung damage

Because carbon nanotubes are similar in size and shape to asbestos fibres, researchers wanted to investigate whether they have the same harmful effect on our lungs.

Studies with mice found that, like asbestos fibres, certain types of nanotubes caused long-term inflammation in the lungs. Over time, this inflammation led to the formation of tumors that mirrored cancers linked to asbestos.

Finished products

The research did not find evidence of risk from finished products which incorporate carbon nanotubes, such as bicycle frames, tennis racquets, boat hulls and sports cars.

The results could aid research into cancer caused by asbestos, for which there is currently no cure. Knowing more about its very early stages could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective therapies, experts say.

Researcher Dr Craig Poland from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Inflammation Research said that new advanced materials such as carbon nanotubes offer an exciting frontier for innovation but safety is imperative.

​​​​​​​We have demonstrated the potential risks posed by long carbon nanotubes. These findings open up the possibility of more effective and efficient screening of advanced fibres to better identify risks and ensure safety.​​

Dr Craig PolandMRC Centre for Inflammation Research, University of Edinburgh

The research was led by the Medical Research Council Toxicology Unit in collaboration with researchers from the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh. The study, published in Current Biology, was funded by the MRC.

Related links

Medical Research Council Centre for Inflammation Research

Original article