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UH Study Reveals how Nanoparticles Interact with Lungs

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Computer simulations showed how the lungs coat inhaled nanoparticles, changing their biological interactions. Photo courtesy of UH Mānoa.

A University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researcher has developed a new method of observing the effects of nanoparticles on human lungs. In a study entitled “Unveiling the molecular structure of pulmonary surfactant corona on nanoparticles,” Professor Yi Zuo of the UH Mānoa College of Engineering used supercomputers to model the interactions of nanoparticles as they enter and interact with lungs at the molecular level.

“Molecular scale interactions between nanoparticles and biomolecules are too small and too fast to be visualized by most conventional experimental methods,” Zuo said. “Hence, we studied the nano-bio interactions with a virtual experiment called molecular dynamics simulations. Using supercomputers, we created a virtual box in which a certain number of molecules and particles can move and interact with each other for a certain time by following the natural laws of physics and chemistry. The final equilibrium state of the simulation reveals the molecular mechanism of nano-bio interactions.”

Nanoparticles exist in a variety of everyday consumer products including cosmetics, clothing, electronics, food and beverages. The Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory maintained by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has listed 1,814 consumer products with nanotechnology, many of which have a potential safety hazard if inhaled. However, the potential health impacts are largely unknown.


Zuo’s study observed that once nanoparticles enter the lungs, they are wrapped in a bio-molecular corona made of the natural pulmonary surfactant. The entire surface of the lungs is lined with a lipid-protein pulmonary surfactant film, which helps ward off infection while reducing surface tension. The pulmonary surfactant corona gives the nanoparticles a new identity, altering their biological interactions inside the body, such as their clearance and cellular toxicity.

The research may help scientists understand the impacts of other air pollutants such as vog, which pose a pulmonary risk to humans, especially those with existing respiratory conditions and children.

Zuo is now continuing his work researching how nanoparticles interact at the molecular level using molecular dynamics simulations. His recently published study was conducted in collaboration with Professor Guoqing Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences with financial support from the National Science Foundation and the Hawai‘i Community Foundation. It was published in the July 2017 issue of the scientific journal ACS Nano.


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