Why and how are heavy metals toxic to cells?
Heavy metals can be bound to substances such as sulphur, and in doing so have the potential to be toxic to most of the body’s cells. However, some heavy metals are quite specific in terms of the cells they damage and the manner in which the damage occurs. One such paradox is posed by methyl mercury, which inhibits most enzymes, but damages specific cells in the nervous system. Among the unanswered questions are what is behind this cellular selectivity and what can we learn about the relevant neurons.
Trace metals and health
A number of trace metals are necessary for human health, but can cause problems in the wrong amounts. Other trace metals have no known function and are considered to be potentially harmful in the lowest concentrations. With modern analytical equipment we can measure 30-50 elements in a single small blood test. We hope this can be used in studies such as HUNT (the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study) to characterize possible connections between illnesses and variation in trace element levels in the blood.
Nanofibres and nanoparticles are products which will become widespread in a great number of products over the next decades – and they will also be used in medical diagnosis and treatment. Some medical uses of these products require that they must be injected directly into the bloodstream, raising questions as to what side-effects may be caused through such procedures. In conjunction with two industry partners, we are developing cell toxicology tests that can help determine which fibres or particles are potentially dangerous.