New research shows graphene can be developed and used safely

Research has found that a specific type of graphene, which has ‘huge potential’ to tackle multiple global challenges, could be developed further without acute risk to human health.


Researchers from Edinburgh and Manchester Universities said that there has been a surge of interest in developing graphene for applications including electronics, phone screens, clothing, paints and water purification.

Specifically, graphene is actively being explored globally to assist with targeted therapeutics against cancer and other health conditions, and also in the form of implantable devices and sensors, according to the researchers.

This study aimed to test inhalation of a specific type of graphene – thin, ultra-pure graphene oxide, a water-compatible form of the material – before it could be considered for medical use.

Researchers found that carefully controlled inhalation of the nanomaterial has no short-term adverse effects on lung or cardiovascular function.

In a statement, Dr Mark Miller, from Edinburgh University's Centre for Cardiovascular Science, said: “Nanomaterials such as graphene hold such great promise, but we must ensure they are manufactured in a way that is safe before they can be used more widely in our lives.

“Being able to explore the safety of this unique material in human volunteers is a huge step forward in our understanding of how graphene could affect the body. With careful design we can safely make the most of nanotechnology.”

Fourteen volunteers breathed the material through a face mask for two hours while cycling in a purpose-designed mobile exposure chamber under controlled exposure and clinical monitoring conditions.

Researchers measured the effects on each volunteer’s lung function, blood pressure, blood clotting and inflammation in the blood before the exposure and at two-hour intervals.

A few weeks later, the volunteers were asked to return to the clinic for repeated controlled exposures to a different size of graphene oxide, or clean air for comparison.

The researchers said that there were no adverse effects on lung function, blood pressure or most other biological parameters being observed. There was a ‘slight suggestion’ that inhalation of the material may influence the way the blood clots, but researchers stress this effect was very small.

Professor Kostas Kostarelos, from Manchester University and the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) in Barcelona, said: “This is the first-ever controlled study involving healthy people to demonstrate that very pure forms of graphene oxide – of a specific size distribution and surface character – can be further developed in a way that would minimise the risk to human health.

“It has taken us more than 10 years to develop the knowledge to carry out this research, from a materials and biological science point of view, but also from the clinical capacity to carry out such controlled studies safely by assembling some of the world’s leading experts in this field.”

The research, funded by the British Heart Foundation and the UKRI EPSRC, can be read in full in Nature Nanotechnology here.