Researchers at the Mainz University Medical Center are investigating the effects of nanoparticles on the gastrointestinal tract

Interdisciplinary joint project NanoKon looks at nanoscale contrast agents


The German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has provided funding of approximately EUR 300,000 for a research project at the Mainz University Medical Center looking at the effect of nanoparticles on the gastrointestinal tract. They can help to get drugs precisely at the correct dose to the target site and be used to diagnose illnesses earlier and more effectively. Thus, nanoparticles are the beacons of hope when it comes to current and future biomedical applications. However, apart from their medical effectiveness, it must be ensured that nanoparticles themselves do not have undesirable effects in the human body. The Mainz researchers, together with their cooperation partners, are working to systematically discover how cells react to these little helpers and what they cause on the cellular level. The undertaking is part of the interdisciplinary joint project NanoKon, which was launched in October 2010.

Nanotechnology is considered to be a growth market of the future and the best prospect for developing improved treatment and diagnostic methods. Novel metal compound-based nanoparticles, for instance, can improve the quality of images produced by diagnostic radiology and magnetic resonance imaging. However, the use of this immense potential also requires responsible handling of the material. How the body responds to nanoparticles has not yet been sufficiently studied. There are similarly few test procedures and evaluation criteria relevant to the use of nanoparticles in medicine.

Within the NanoKon project, novel contrast agents that can be used to examine the gastrointestinal tract and are developed by the companies participating in the project are to be studied. In addition to the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Saarland University, the Leibniz Institute for New Materials in Saarbrücken, and the companies Sarastro GmbH and Nanogate AG are participating in the project.

"New synthesis techniques mean that we can now create an almost unlimited number of different nanoparticles. Finding out which of these particles at which dose might have a harmful effect on which types of cells of the gastrointestinal tract has been an extremely laborious and tedious process to date," summed up the Mainz project leader, Professor Roland Stauber, Director of the work group on Molecular and Cellular Oncology at the Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Head, and Neck Surgery at the Mainz University Medical Center. "The new microscopy techniques, in combination with the special robotic systems placed at our disposal by the Mainz Screening Center (MSC), will now allow us to perform these tests in a relatively short time," the researcher said.

Using human cell culture models as living bioreactors, important properties, such as mitotic activity or the appearance of the cells under the microscope, can be assessed to determine the health of the cells. The aim is not only to gain a better understanding of the biological effects of nanoscale contrast media on the human gastrointestinal tract, but also to develop high-throughput screening methods that can be widely used to assess the use of nanoparticles in medicine. According to Professor Fred Zepp, Deputy Scientific Director of the Mainz University Medical Center and Vice-Dean for Research, the Mainz Screening Center has a key role to play. "The results of the NanoKon project could thus ultimately be significant beyond the scope of the project and be used by the industry and the authorities to undertake risk assessments for the benefit of patients before approving products containing nanoparticles."