After a year of communicating only online due to COVID-related constraints, more than 150 scientists, industry professionals and policymakers convened online and on-site for the second annual meeting of the European research cluster to understand the health impacts of micro- and nanoplastics, CUSP, celebrated at the facilities of the European Commission’s (EC) Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Ispra, Italy from June 8th – 10th. The multidisciplinary teams from AURORA, Imptox, PlasticHeal, PlasticsFatE, and Polyrisk, the five large-scale EU-funded projects forming the cluster, discussed the progress made and the challenges faced in the previous year, and they planned the research and collaborative activities for the near future.
The three-day meeting was kicked off by 2022 CUSP chair, Alba Hernández from PlasticHeal, who highlighted the positive impact of the in-person gathering to strengthen and boost collaboration across projects and working groups. Guy van den Eede, active director of the European Commission’s Directorate for Health, Consumers & Reference Materials, welcomed the participants and emphasized the importance of studying the effects of the micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs) on human health. He outlined two EU initiatives tackling this issue: the research on microplastics that are intentionally added to products, and the studies of microplastics in drinking water. Carmen Laplaza-Santos, Head of the Health Innovations & Ecosystems Unit from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, emphasized the increasing concerns among EU citizens about the presence of MNPs and acknowledged the work performed by the Cluster during this first year, despite the logistical difficulties arising from pandemic restrictions. “Working in a cluster is more challenging, but it helps in achieving more impact,” she stated.
Balancing the desirable with the possible
The first session of the meeting was public and featured speakers from the EC, the JRC, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), who addressed the balance between the desirable and the possible when it comes to nanoplastic materials for research. The production of realistic nanoparticles, pointed out by the Chair of the session, Susanne Beltz from JRC, is challenging since there are not commercially available lifelike micro- and nanoparticles. Susanne Bremer Hoffmann, from the JRC, described some considerations for in vitro testing of micro- and nanoplastic particles, while Denise Mitrano, from ETH Zurich, offered a view of the synthesis and characterization of metal-doped nanoplastics and their utility to investigate the association with human cells. Stefania Federici, from the University of Brescia, focused on plastic pollution at the nanoscale and “true-to-life” test materials in relation to the biological interface.
To close the more scientific part of the session, Hind el Hadri from the JRC, presented a model of nanoplastics production and characterization from mechanically degraded primary and secondary microplastics. The policy needs regarding micro- and nanoplastics were approached by Bert Leemans, from the EC Directorate-General (DG) for Environment, and Ricardo But, from the EC DG for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, who thoroughly explained the EU’s political priorities, knowledge gaps, and policy needs regarding MNP research from the perspective of their respective DGs. José Tarazona, from EFSA, addressed the risk assessment needs and underlined the scarce evidence of the effect of MNPs on human health, highlighting the importance of New Approach Methodologies, which should be seen as more than just alternatives to animal testing. The session ended with a talk on how to effectively communicate science to policymakers, by Lene Topp, from JRC.
During the subsequent sessions, project scientists including the five Project Coordinators from AURORA (Roel Vermeulen), Imptox (Tanja Ćirković Veličković), PlasticHeal (Alba Hernández), PlasticsFatE (Rudolf Reuther) and Polyrisk (Raymond Pieters) shared their research developments.
Working group updates
The leaders of the six CUSP working groups also presented the main progress achieved so far within each:
Analytical methods and representative materials. Progress in defining a common MNP dispersion protocol.
Data sharing. Agreement to work on eNanomapper templates, and to use IPCHEM for human data. Omics data will be uploaded to specific repositories. Organization of specific training/guidance on eNanomapper.
Inter-laboratory comparisons (ILC). Agreement between the five projects to target lLC at the detection methods and to evaluate aspects such as the identification of the particles, the determination of their number concentration, their size, and the mass in the respective samples. The VAMAS (Versailles Project on Advanced Materials and Standards) has been identified as the international platform the develop the CUSP ILC.
Exposure assessment. First CUSP internal Thematic Workshop: “Micro/nanoplastic exposure metrics: Priorities for research to inform human health risk assessment” took place on March 3, 2022, to share inspiration and hands-on experience, identify gaps and refine the research priorities of the five cluster projects.
Risk assessment. Preparation of an inventory of experimental models and effect biomarkers relevant for the five CUSP projects in terms of hazard assessment of MNP and identification of the key elements across the cluster. Specific meetings on animal studies and on biomonitoring/human case studies following identification of key issues. Internal CUSP survey to explore which risk assessment frameworks the researchers adhere to and the aspects of risk assessment they expect to contribute to, based on their work.
Communication and dissemination. Development and maintenance of the CUSP graphic and digital communication channels (website, social networks, brochure, poster, newsletter, and other resources).
A more detailed account of the work done during the first year across the working groups is also available in the June issue of the CUSP newsletter.
In addition to the main discussion sessions, on site participants during the meeting had the opportunity to visit the JRC Nanobiotechnology Laboratory, which is focused on the characterisation of nanomaterials, nanomedicines, advanced materials, and MNPs as well as the JRC Visitors’ Centre to discover the research areas of the JRC.
The gathering closed on Friday, June 10th in the early afternoon. In a closing speech, Birgit Sokull-Kluettgen, from the JRC, thanked the CUSP team and confirmed JRC’s keen interest in further collaborating with the Cluster. Alba Hernández, this year’s CUSP Chair, made the final remarks and highlighted as a main outcome of the meeting the setting out of high-priority topics for the Second CUSP Thematic workshop, scheduled for the last quarter of the year, as well as the first CUSP Young Researchers’ event to promote and facilitate the exchange of CUSP know-how at the postdoc and PhD levels.
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