Keeping things in perspective
Many scientists claim that nanotechnology is a rather artificial term and that it is only “…what we have been doing for ages” …whether in physics, chemistry or biology. On the other hand, there is a huge hype and fuss about “nanotechnology” and the appearance of the “nano“ prefix on a wide range of consumer products from skin cream to personal electronic devices and automotive products to stone cleaners. So why has “nano” become such a buzzword for some, whilst raising scepticism in others? For clues we perhaps need to look back to the early days of nanotechnology.
While the term “nanotechnology” (one nanometre (nm) equals one billionth of a metre and the nanoscale is generally considered to be the region 1 to 100 nm) was first coined by Norio Taniguchi in his 1974 paper entitled “On the Basic Concept of “Nano-Technology”1 it first came to the attention of the public in the mid 1980s when its first major proponent, Eric Drexler, laid out an ambitious futuristic scenario in his book, Engines of Creation2. This predicted nanoscale “universal assemblers” capable of creating “…almost anything that the laws of nature allow to exist”. The book was a hit and inspired the start a huge amount of research at nanoscale. At the same time the idea was picked up by the popular media, creating an immediate public interest in the new field of “nanotechnology” which has remained, for better or worse, until the present.
Futuristic visions of nanomedicine do not only come from science fiction. Robert Freitas Jr., Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in Palo Alto, California and author of the Nanomedicine series3 is a leading proponent of the concept of medical nanorobotics. He published the first detailed prospective technical design study for a medical nanodevice, the “respirocyte,” in 19984 and continues an exploration of the future possibilities for medical nanorobotics in the Nanomedicine series. While, in the long term, this technology may become feasible, science is currently at a much less complex stage of implementing medical solutions at the nanoscale. Yet, the idea of the medical robot busily repairing cells in the bloodstream remains firmly in the public imagination and is an image regularly repeated in the popular media.
Currently, medicine at the nanoscale offers the prospect of highly effective new drug delivery systems, greatly improved imaging, biosensing and diagnosis, new structures and materials for use in regenerative medicine (where the body is encouraged to regenerate tissues itself), whole new generations of highly miniaturized medical devices, and exciting new treatments for cancer, diabetes and other, sometimes previously untreatable, diseases. This prospect is reflected in the huge amount of EU research funding in the “priority streams” of health and nanotechnology, some €6.1 billion and €3.5 billion respectively, a large proportion of which is directed towards research in nanomedicine.
This development is likely to be a gradual and incremental process across a number of converging disciplines, perhaps only culminating in the much longer term in smart, multifunctional, microscopic devices, built up from nanoscale components, of the type foreseen by Freitas and others, manufactured by “bottom-up” molecular assembly.
Perhaps, however, this rapid progress has in part been fuelled by the visions of Robert Freitas and other pioneers, through the inspiration of new generations of students, scientists and medical researchers. While it is not wise to raise public expectations or fears by some of the more outlandish ideas of science fiction, it is perhaps valid to postulate on where the increased ability to engineer at the nanoscale may take society.
Returning to the original question… is nanotechnology something new or merely an extension of existing science and technology? It is probably both. Certainly, the ability to investigate nanoscale phenomena can be seen as the natural and logical extension to existing sciences. Chemistry and some branches of physics have always been concerned with nanoscale interactions, as has molecular biology, and practitioners of those sciences can justifiably claim to have always “done nanotechnology.”
But nanotechnology is defined by many of its practitioners as being more than that. It is defined in the British Standards Institution’s PAS 715 as the “design, characterization, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at the nanoscale” and it is multidisciplinary and product-focused by its very nature. Until fairly recently it was impossible to consistently apply the necessary tools and control at the nanoscale to manufacture more than simple materials and structures, and certainly not the range of products in current development and envisioned for the future.
A number of medical products incorporating nanotechnology-based materials have already appeared on the market such as:
- suture needles incorporating stainless steel nanocrystals - nanodiamond-coated surgical blades - superparamagnetic iron oxide (SPIO) nanoparticles for magnetic resonance imaging - wound dressings incorporating nanocrystalline silver particles
Other more advanced nanomedical products currently in development include:
- nanoporous drug-eluting vascular stent coatings - nanobubbles for ultrasonic imaging - nanoshells for photothermal ablation cancer treatment - magnetic nanoparticles for cancer treatment - drug delivery systems based on a wide range of nanoparticles and other nanostructures - nanotechnology-based biosensors - lab-on-a-chip devices with nanoscale features - nanofeatured tissue-engineering scaffolds - multifunctional, targeted “theranostic” nanoparticles capable of being imaged and activated at the chosen disease site
This list of examples is by no means exhaustive and there are many other clinical areas and applications where nanotechnology is beginning to have a major impact.
Nanomedicine, in particular, is characterized by a strong convergence of different disciplines. The application of nanoscience and nanotechnology to imaging, diagnostics, regenerative medicine, the design of advanced medical materials and novel drug delivery systems typically involves interfaces and interactions between biology and chemistry, physics, materials science and other fields. This is also driven by the ever greater understanding of biochemical processes and the sometimes novel ways that nanomaterials react with the human body.
While such research progresses it is important not to forget that there may, in addition to benefits, be potential new risks arising from nanoscale properties of materials, and that how these risks are addressed and communicated can affect the public’s perception. In the past, some new technology or scientific issues have been badly mishandled in the way that information about risks has been communicated to the public. Notable examples include BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “mad cow disease”), genetically modified organisms (GMOs), contaminated blood, and the notion of a nanotechnology “grey goo” (the latter involving fears arising from a science fiction story further amplified by press misunderstanding of the science). Such incidents have left public trust in scientists, certain industries and government institutions at a rather low ebb. Media reports frequently ignore scientific fact and dwell on phantom risks, or otherwise misinterpret them badly. Yet, most people are able to take complex decisions about risks if they are sufficiently and properly informed and perceive a benefit that substantially outweighs any risks.
As the science becomes more complex and “invisible” it is therefore necessary to put a proportionately greater effort into risk research of novel nanomaterials and nanotechnology-based products and applications, and into communicating the results with the public. This needs to include informing them about both benefits and risks, short and long-term, as well as the measures that have been taken to reduce risks, and engaging them in the governance processes that will undoubtedly impact on their lives in the not-so-distant future.
Article adapted from one by the same author that previously appeared in Medical Device Technology, 2008.
Source: NANO Magazine - Issue 6 /...
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