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The Health Risks of Graphene

During the pandemic a widespread use of nanoparticles has been employed for diagnostics, personal protection equipment, prevention, and treatments of diseases. The use of nanoparticles in biomedicine is expected to increase further due to a desire for real-time human health monitoring as seamless human/machine interaction.

The most booming nanoparticles that may rule future lives are graphene-derived products. The novel 2-D material graphene has advantages in mechanical, thermal and electrical properties and is used in wearable sensors and implantable devices whereas the research and development of the oxidized form graphene oxide is used for cancer treatment, drug delivery, vaccine development, ultra-low concentration diagnostics, eradication of microbial contamination and cellular imaging.

Thus far scientific literature on graphene-derived products is mainly focused on the positive aspects. During the pandemic, graphene oxide became known as an unsafe nanoparticle that could be present in facemasks and tests. Meanwhile scientists are questioning possible devastating effects of graphene-derived products on human health and the environment. The hype of graphene-derived products has led to a fast track from product to market release while reliable and reproducible data on cytotoxic and genotoxic effects are still missing.

Graphene unlimited

In 2010 two researchers, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov from Manchester University received the Nobel Prize in Physics for isolating the one Carbon atom layer derived from graphite present in pencils, by using a kind of scotch tape. The amazing material is the lightest and thinnest versatile substance known to humankind. It is transparent, conductive and selectively permeable.

The C-atoms are tightly bound in a honeycomb (hexagonal) lattice. Based on the qualities of graphene the material is used in many fields varying from electronics to biomedicine. In 2013 the European Commission started a Future and Emerging Technology project, the Graphene Flagship, with a budget of one billion Euros for a period of ten years with 170 academics and industrial partners from 22 countries involved, now owning many graphene products in pipeline.

However, production of high volume and quality graphene (pure, homogenous and sterile) for affordable prices to implement the possibilities of graphene-derived products in daily life is still a challenge, as well as improving standardization and validation of the cellular systems and biological systems to test various forms of graphene for its toxicity.

The EU Graphene Flagship Project acknowledges that there are still gaps to fulfill risk-related knowledge. It is expected that application of graphene will reach maturity in the period 2025-2030. EU-manufactured nanomaterials must fulfill the REACH regulations in order to be authorized for industrial production and commercialization.

A portal to human-machine interaction

Many politicians and public health experts promote the introduction of technology in healthcare as a major instrument to manage the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases. Moreover, it is thought to be beneficial to decrease costs and fill the gap in shortness of healthcare professionals.

The policy would transfer from a focus on disease to prevention which has led to the idea of a Good Health Pass that could be linked to an ID card and vaccination passport. In this way each person can be instructed when and how to act to prevent disease and stay in good health even when traveling to other countries.

A graphene-based sensor platform with non-invasive and invasive application including wearable sensors for monitoring biophysical, biochemical, environmental signals and implantable devices for nervous, cardiovascular, digestive and locomotor systems is predicted to be of enormous value for implementing Artificial Intelligence.

In the Graphene Flagship project various skin patch sensors based on graphene are developed to empower people to continuously monitor and proactively make safer choices. The first invasive neural interface in the brain with the ability to interpret brain signals with unprecedented high fidelity, producing a therapeutic response adapted to the clinical condition of each patient, is expected to enter clinical trials soon. The innovation is linked to the € 1,3 billion EU Human Brain Project to enhance the field of neuroscience computing and brain-related medicine expecting more implantable devices influencing behavior to be developed.

Graphene oxide and the human body

Graphene oxide can unintentionally enter the body through inhalation, dermal contact, and ingestion as it can disperse in many solvents. Toxic effects of GO are dependent on several variables including the route of administration influencing distribution in the body, the dose, the method of synthesis, impurities from the production process and its size and physicochemical properties like oxidation degree.

GO has a high adsorption capacity for proteins, minerals and antibodies in the human body which transforms the structure and form of GO to a bio-corona that can interact with other biomolecules and physiological processes. A difference in biocompatibility was suggested to be due to the differential compositions of the protein corona formed on their surfaces that determine their cell interaction and pro-inflammatory effects.

The many contradictory results from no toxicity to possible long-term serious damage, depending on physicochemical properties and the experimental conditions chosen, ask for a better understanding of its toxicokinetics and mechanisms involved for acute and long-term exposure.


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