Nanotechnology for health: 10-year EU-US perspective

A while back I offered to write more about Health and Nanotechnology: Economic, Societal, and Institutional Impact, a report from a conference convened with the cooperation of the U.S. Dept. of State and the European Commission, part of a series called Perspectives on the Future of Science and Technology, which has a ten-year time horizon. Here are some additional excerpts. From the Introduction:

…participants gathered in Varenna to consider how health-related nanoproducts and applications might impact society and the economy, and how institutions might seek proactively to maximize the benefits of nanotechnology while minimizing risk.

There ‘s that ‘maximize, minimize’ language again, of which we at Foresight are so fond. Next, from Discussion Group B:

Potential Misuse. Although nanotechnology may give us increasing power over nature, we must not be blind to the prospect of misuse. Possible problems include terrorism, weaponization of nanoparticles, and invasion of privacy. Devices, for instance, able to track the movements of persons or objects (analogous to radiofrequency ID technology) raise obvious concerns for privacy.

Because public money is invested in nanotechnological research, results must be communicated openly and transparently, and such research must also be subjected to appropriate government oversight. We recommend, as additional topics for a structured EU-US discussion, the formation of a joint assessment strategy and an exploration of international limits on applications. The idea of joint peer review (one of the recommendations of the Airlie House conference), together with the design of methodology for joint, ongoing assessment, could help implement this recommendation as a project of common interest. We suggest that such a forum also be open to countries (Japan and others) developing nanotechnology outside the borders of the United States and the European Union…

Specifically, nanotechnology and its convergence with information storage capacity and biotechnology will lead to “hyperchoice”: a world of potentially unlimited choices. Storage capacity will soon be virtually free and will affect the way we learn and communicate. It will open the way to novel applications that we do not yet envisage.

What impact will this new freedom and choice have? How do we set limits? How do we choose a collaborative agenda? Hyperchoice means that we must choose responsibly for society and decide what will be allowed and what will be prohibited.

From Discussion Group C, the only group which has posted its work on the web:

The published NNI expenditure in 2006 for “Societal Dimensions” is estimated at $42.6 million for educational, ethical, legal, and other societal issues, and approximately $38.5 million for EHS (environmental, health, and safety) R & D.

Seems out of whack to me. Next up are some time estimates included from a 2001 Japanese analysis:

Widespread use of treatment methods capable of completely curing Alzheimer’s disease 2020
Elucidation of individual aging mechanisms 2021

From Hans Riese, Clinical Development Department, Neuropharma-Zeltia, Madrid:

An additional area for discussion—and one that should move policymakers to act accordingly—concerns the “nano divide” that might arise between nations that already have the technical infrastructure needed to develop nanodiagnosis and emerging nations that will require access to it. Since unequal access to life-saving technologies is wholly unacceptable, steps must be taken to avoid this potentially negative outcome.

While we at Foresight are all in favor of getting nanomedical technologies delivered affordably to developing nations, the idea that unequal access could be entirely avoided in advance seems overly ambitious. Perhaps this was a translation problem. From chemist Paul Alivisatos of UC Berkeley:

Further, we are learning to assemble these building blocks into artificial nonliving systems that mimic features and behaviors of living ones.

For instance, we can imagine making a system that will move toward pollutants or toxins and neutralize them. How? By combining cell motility and chemotaxis units within an artificial abiotic system that delivers catalysts for breaking down specific molecules.* And once we learn how to emulate natural nanoscale systems, we will soon develop our own abilities to improve on them. Just as the earliest airplanes contained many features derived from close observation of birds, today’s airplanes—which bear little relationship to birds—fly much faster and farther. By copying nature’s nanotechnologies, we can learn how to greatly improve our own.

* This example is presently being investigated at the Cell Propulsion Laboratory, a Nanomedicine Center joint undertaking between the UCSF Medical School and UC Berkeley.

This airplane-bird analogy will be familiar to many Foresight members. It’s a shame that this interesting report is not on the web. The paper version I have doesn’t appear to be copyrighted, so perhaps someone will put it up. —Christine

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