Nanomaterials are present in everyday household products like toothpaste, shampoo, and make-up. Foods such as powdered doughnuts and candy with stamped lettering also contain these tiny particles. Little is known about the effects of nanomaterials on expectant mothers and their babies, but a West Virginia University researcher has received a grant to investigate whether they are safe during pregnancy.

Phoebe Stapleton, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow in the WVU School of Medicine Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, will use the nearly $1 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study gestational exposure to nanomaterials. Dr. Stapleton is the first at WVU to earn a Pathway to Independence Award from the NIH.

She will use an animal model to test the effects of two specific nanomaterials: titanium dioxide and multi-walled carbon nanotubes. In addition to their ability to make products stronger and lighter, nanomaterials can be used to design pharmaceuticals that target specific organs or cells in the body, such as cancer cells, and enhance the effectiveness of therapy. Nanomaterials are also useful for medical diagnosis, imaging, and drug delivery.

“Nanotechnology readily has tremendous potential to improve human health,” Stapleton said. “We don’t want to assume a product is safe or unsafe for a population just because they are expecting, especially if there could be a remarkable benefit.”

Stapleton will then investigate how maternal exposure early in gestation differs from later and if there is a critical window during development. There are many different ways an expectant mother could be exposed to nanomaterials – through eating certain foods or applying personal care products, like sunscreen. In addition, an expectant mother who works in a facility where nanomaterials are used may inhale them during manufacturing.

“There are also possible intentional biomedical uses that she’s been told to avoid because she’s expecting,” Stapleton said. “It’s important to know if these exposures are safe and she could reap the benefits, or if they could cause harm to her or the fetus.

“In this area of toxicology, we’re kind of working backwards because these products are already on the market,” she added. “Some of these cardiovascular tests that we’re doing, like the pregnancy ones for example, the materials weren’t necessarily tested in a pregnant population before putting them on the market. We’re working in reverse to find out what problems could be out there for these exposures and how much of something they’d need to be exposed to show a problem.”

Stapleton said the end result of the project could affect how much one should use or consume products with nanomaterials. Her findings could also lead to guidelines for the amount of nanomaterials manufacturers can put in products.

The Pathway to Independence Award comes in two parts. The first is post-doctoral training and career development, which will prepare Stapleton to have her own lab, while the second phase is a professional grant to fund lab space, equipment, and salaries. During the five-year period of the grant, Stapleton will be mentored by a team that includes Tim Nurkiewicz, Ph.D.; Jim Simpkins, Ph.D.; David Siderovski, Ph.D.; and Vince Castranova, Ph.D.

Stapleton has spent the past four years under the mentorship of Dr. Nurkiewicz, associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. Thanks to a previous NIH grant, Stapleton studied the effects of nanomaterial inhalation and found that exposure leads to microvascular dysfunction outside of the lung.

“For example, when you take the stairs, the vessels in your heart and legs are going to expand to increase blood flow for all that activity – to allow the heart to react,” Stapleton said. “When there’s dysfunction, smaller vessels are not responding in the way we would expect them to. This can cause pain in the legs or the chest.

“We’ve extrapolated that out to a pregnancy model. We will be asking and answering, what happens if a pregnant woman is exposed to nanomaterials?” she continued. “Then, what happens to the fetus, specifically associated with cardiovascular development? Lastly, what happens to the fetus as it develops into adulthood?”