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Portrait of a scientist: Maria Dusinska

Foto: Finnn Bjørklid

– All my life is work, says nanoscientist Maria eagerly, while she in English, and with the ease born of long practice, throws around words like cytotoxicity, genotoxicity, oxidative stress and nanomaterials. She has not been easy to “catch” for this meeting. She is head of the Health Effects Laboratory at NILU, and even more than usually engaged in her projects.

Maria Dusinska
Senior Scientist Maria Dusinska, NILU.

– You want to know the real reason why I moved to Norway? It’s kind of personal, she smiles. – My partner moved to Norway in 2002 to work at the University of Oslo, and I tried to get a job in Norway to be with him. He is English and I am Slovak, and we chose Norway because this country was neither his nor mine. It was a place that none of us had an affiliation to.

NILU – The Norwegian Institute for Air Research boasts a very international research environment. As a Slovak Maria Dusinska represents one of 28 different nationalities at the institute. She has studied biology and genetics, and she speaks English, Russian, Czech and understand a bit of German, in addition to her mother tongue. She has a RNDr in genetics from the Comenius University in Bratislava and PhD in genetic toxicology, mutagenesis and carcinogenesis from the Cancer Research Institute, SAS, also in Bratislava. Her two theses are titled “Use of mammalian cells in vitro in the screening of cytostatic compounds” and “Contribution to study of DNA-repair, DNA-replication and neoplastic transformation in vitro“.

From 2000-2002 she was a Councillor of the European Environmental Mutagen Society (EEMS), and she has also worked as a national expert on biotechnology and genomics in the EU. At present she is a member of the Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS) in the EU.

– I came to NILU after teaching food toxicology at the University of Oslo, she tells me.

At NILU she “got pregnant with” and later “delivered” her darling: The Health Effects Laboratory. The laboratory was just starting up when Maria joined NILU in 2006. In 2008 it was officially opened. Now it includes three laboratories and a microscope-room.

The Health Effect Laboratory

Maria speeks enthusiastic of her “baby”, the Health Effects Laboratory.
– We test the toxicity of contaminants at the cellular level. The idea is that the Health Effects Laboratory will give the authorities better opportunity to regulate the use of new products. We can perform tests for businesses to ensure that they do not develop and sell products that have bad impact on human health and the environment.

Maria is also very proud that the laboratory is the only one in Norway certified for good laboratory practice (GLP) in in vitro toxicity, genotoxicity and nanotoxicity.


Maria is project manager for the project NorNANoREG, on assignment for the Norwegian Research Institute. The project is complementary to  the EU-project NANoREG, a joint European approach to the regulatory testing of manufactured nanomaterials.

– In the future, nanotechnology will become more and more important, she says. – We must be able to test whether nanoparticles are good or can be harmful to cells at an early stage, in order to make faster and better decisions for the proper application of nanomaterials. This means testing the products during their development, before they are released into the market. We are interested in mechanisms in which nanomaterials interact with cells, and we try to develop faster, more efficient and more robust methods.

Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology

– Today nanomaterials are everywhere; in sunscreens, socks, sportswear, washing machines, toys, and even as a film inside milk cartons, says Maria. – Look for instance at nanosilver. Today we use silver nanoparticles as an antibacterial technology in socks. When we wash the socks, the silver goes out with the wastewater and ends up in the ecosystem.  The  nanoparticles are so small that they can pass through cell membranes. We don’t know what effects they may have on us or the environment in the long run.

– Nanotechnology gives us endless possibilities, but also unknown effects, she states. – Nanomedicine is a good example. The nanoparticles can pass through cell membranes to kill cancer cells, but as the nanoparticles are very small they are very reactive with other substances, and their properties can be both beneficial and harmful. It’s like flipping a coin.

One of the ways nanoparticles act and cause health effects is via oxidative stress. This can damage both cell membranes, proteins and DNA. If such injuries pile up they may result in damage to organs and systems where cells are involved. Oxidative stress can cause inflammation, cytotoxicity (cell damage) and apoptosis (programmed cell death).

Effects on the human body

Although NILU is an environmental research institute, and pollutants are one of our core areas, the institute is first and foremost associated with air quality and air pollution. Is there an obvious link to the Health Effects Laboratory?

– NILU is monitoring emerging pollutants, including contaminants in air. In the Health Effects Laboratory, we can test how the different compounds present in the air affects the human body by testing them on cells from lungs, says Maria.

Maria and her colleagues at the Health Effects Laboratory use cells from lungs, kidneys or other organs and expose them for example with pollutants, micro particles or nanomaterials. They test whether these compounds are harmful or destructive to the cells, or if they lead to damage in DNA, cause gene mutations or are carcinogenic.

They seek to control and understand the behavior, fate and effects of the particles. – We are looking at very small particles – from one to one hundred nanometers, Maria explains. – They come in any size, shape and surface. Because they are so small they are often very reactive with other substances, and the same substances may react differently with each other in the air, water or in the body. It’s fascinating!

New and better tests

The laboratory has developed new and better methods and continuously works towards more efficient, robust and faster tests. All tests are in vitro. This means that they test on cell cultures in glass or petri dishes, and not on animals or humans. – It is cheaper, gives faster results and is more ethical, says Maria.
– I feel like I have moved in a loop, she continues. – After ten years of human molecular epidemiology studies, I am now back where I started: with in vitro testing.
When posed the question of which, in her opinion, are the biggest questions scientists need to find answers to regarding human health and the environment that surrounds us, she does not pause to think.

– We need to understand all the factors to make our lives healthier. We grow older, we live longer. We need to find the conditions that make also old life healthy. Not only lifestyle, nutrition, society and environment. We must identify the most harmful factors to avoid disease. The full picture. It depends on genetics too, and heritage, and environment. The combination is what is important!