NWA grant for Leiden physicists Bossoni and Huber for research into iron nanoparticles in the brain


Physicists Lucia Bossoni and Martina Huber have been awarded an NWA Ideeëngenerator-grant for research into iron nanoparticles in the brain. These nanoparticles may be linked to air pollution and Alzheimer's disease.

‘Iron plays a key role in the body, but for the most part this is not in the form of iron containing nano particles', says Lucia Bossoni. There is one exception: in order to store excesses of iron, the protein ferritin forms a slim protein shield around ferrihydryte, an iron containing mineral.

This nano-iron is the first piece in a puzzle in physics and biology that Bossoni, a physicist and postdoc at the LUMC medical faculty, wants to solve. For this, she is teaming up with Martina Huber at LION.

Alzheimer's disease

In the nineties, researchers discovered a second type of iron nanoparticles in the brain: iron oxide, also known as 'magnetite'. As the name suggests, this material is magnetic. ‘This was difficult to explain, as magnetite does not play a role in any biological process.'

Later, this magnetite was shown to occur in the protein plaques in their brain which are characteristic for Alzheimer's disease. In 2016, this brain magnetite was discovered to be very similar in shape and size to iron oxide particles in air pollution. 

A link between air pollution, iron in the brain and Alzheimer's disease seemed apparent. Bossoni and Huber would like to investigate the nature of this link.

Iron nanoparticles

Iron nanoparticles could originate from air pollution, but another possibility would be that a faulty type of ferritin protein creates a wrong, toxic form of iron. This would mean that the Alzheimer link would be very different.

Bossoni and Huber want to use the 50 thousand euro NWA Ideeëngenerator grant, intended for explorative research, to learn to characterize the nanoparticles properly.

With this goal in mind, they will use several measuring techniques including Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR), Huber's specialism. In this technique, the electron spins of the iron produce signals that depend on the crystal structure and the interaction between electron spins in the crystal. ‘It yields a fingerprint of the nano particles', says Bossoni. The researchers will also use X-ray spectroscopy and electron microscopy. 

Brain tissue

The knowledge gained can be used to compare iron particles from post mortem brain tissue to iron particles from air pollution. 

The grant will be mainly used for research materials, and for hiring technicians in preparing the measurements. Says Bossoni: 'Eventually, we want to answer these questions: do these particles originate in air pollution, or does our body make them? And what is their link with Alzheimer's disease?'