Personal profile

Research interests

There are many uncertainties surrounding the potential adverse effects associated with the exposure of humans and the environment to nanomaterials. However, many benefits may be realised through the exploitation of nanomaterials in numerous applications, in diverse sectors. It is therefore necessary to address these uncertainties, so that innovation in this emerging area is not stifled and appropriate control measures can be introduced to manage any identified risks. This will mean that the benefits promised may be realised in a safe manner.

Helinor specialises in investigation of the hazards posed by nanomaterials to human health and the environment. Helinor has diverse research interests including but not limited to; investigation of nanomaterial toxicity at different target sites (e.g. lungs, liver, intestine, skin and immune system), the development of alternatives to animal testing (e.g. simple and complex in vitro models, and early life stages of zebrafish), investigation of the mechanism of nanomaterial toxicity, identification of the physico-chemical properties of nanomaterials which confer toxicity, investigation of the ecotoxicity (aquatic and terrestrial) of nanomaterials, and the development of nanomedicines (e.g. anti-microbial nanomaterials, and development of drug/diagnostic delivery devices) to better diagnose and treat disease (e.g. cancer, cardiovascular disease, TB).

In addition, Helinor investigates the harmful effects of particulate air pollution emitted from different sources (e.g. traffic, biomass burning (e.g. agricultural land burning, wildfires). She has participated in projects in the UK and Thailand to perform epidemiology and experimental studies to investigate the adverse health impacts of particulate air pollution (PM10).



Prof Helinor Johnston is a professor (of toxicology) who joined Heriot-Watt University as the Deputy Director of the Nano-Safety Group in January 2011. Helinor has diverse research interests and focuses mainly (but not exclusively) on assessing the harmful effects of particles (e.g. nanomaterials and particulate air pollution) on human health. Prior to joining Heriot-Watt, Helinor was a scientific advisor (2009-2010) in the Chemicals and Nanotechnologies division of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). At Defra she was responsible for research concerned with the environmental impacts of nanomaterials, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Helinor completed a post-doc in 2009, at Edinburgh Napier University that was concerned with reviewing the available published literature on the toxicity of nanoparticles to humans, through participation in the FP7 funded project ENRHES (Engineered Nanoparticles-Review of Health and Environmental Safety). Prior to this she completed her PhD entitled ‘Evaluating the uptake, intracellular fate and functional consequences of hepatocyte exposure, to a range of nanoparticles in vitro’ in 2008 at Edinburgh Napier University. Helinor's PhD was conducted as part of the FP6 funded project PARTICLE_RISK. This project was responsible for assessing the health risks associated with exposure to nanoparticles. The adverse effects of a particle panel, that had varied physico-chemical characteristics was assessed at a number of target sites. She was responsible for determining the impacts of nanoparticle exposure on the liver. Helinor completed her undergraduate degree at King’s College London, in Pharmacology and Toxicology in 2005.

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being


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