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Mar 1st 2010

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Nanotech: Big ideas, tiny technologies

Plastic solar cells, windows that generate solar energy, and ultra-fine water filtration systems with the potential to save billions of lives. Scientists claim that products based on nanotechnology could one day change the world. But what exactly is nanotechnology, and how do we know it’s safe? By Business 21C correspondent Lachlan Jobbins.

Imagine a test for cancer that was as easy and cheap to use as a pregnancy test. Sold in the supermarket or pharmacy, you could take the test and get a result almost instantly. Such an invention could potentially save millions of lives. But that’s science fiction, right?

Thanks to the emerging science of nanotechnology, medical innovations like this are on the horizon – and some are already here.

Research presented at the recent International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN 2010) suggests that although 74 per cent of Australians have heard of nanotechnology, almost a third of them don’t know what it means. Most of us are ‘excited’ or ‘hopeful’ about the possibilities, but we don’t really understand what’s involved.

What exactly is nanotechnology, and is it dangerous? How does a new product get from research to market, and who makes sure it’s safe?

These were the issues at a public forum in Sydney on Tuesday 23 February. Hosted by James O’Loghlin from ABC’s New Inventors, the forum brought together scientists, regulators, lawyers and consumer advocates to discuss a speculative nanotechnology product – an early-stage cancer diagnostic – from R&D through the regulatory process to commercialisation and to the consumer.

Panellists talked about the issues that can arise at each stage: cost and safety considerations; regulatory hurdles; what the public needs to know; and the ethical minefield of commercialising academic research.

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is a science that uses extremely small particles and devices – atoms, molecules and particles a millionth of a millimetre in size – to produce new processes, products and devices for areas such as energy, health and water.

Right now, nanoscientists are developing plastic solar cells that can be printed on a banknote machine, glass windows that generate their own electricity, and ultra-fine filtration systems that can remove heavy metals from wastewater. Other examples already in widespread use include stain resistant nano fabrics, non-smelling socks impregnated with nano-silver, and non-streaking sunscreen with nano-zinc.

But how do you control something so tiny?

It’s actually not such a foreign concept. ‘Chemistry is all about controlling the small’, said Matt Trau, a scientist from the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at UQ. ‘It’s all about atoms and molecules.’

‘Biology is the absolute master of this process’, Trau said. ‘Our bodies are full of nanoscale objects – proteins, DNA and so on – that work like exquisite machinery to keep us alive. Our very existence is a testament to controlling the small.’

With a disease like cancer, it’s essential to get down to that scale in order to tackle it. Where treatments like chemotherapy can kill a lot of healthy cells in order to get to the cancerous ones, nanoparticles could potentially be created to specifically target cancerous cells and avoid normal, healthy ones.

In a similar way, scientists claim nanotech could one day be used to deliver drugs to exactly where they are needed in the body – allowing smaller, cheaper and more accurate doses.

What are the risks?

Things behave differently at the nano scale than in their larger form, so one of the challenges is adequate testing of products with nanotechnologies to make sure they are safe. Things that are beneficial at large scales might be dangerous in nano forms.

Technology is neither good nor evil, but it can have unintended effects. Is it going to be safe for us and the environment? How should we regulate it? How do we balance risk and reward?

These are issues not only for scientists, but for government regulators, investors and manufacturers , and consumer groups. Nanotech has great potential, but like any new technology, it won’t come without its stumbling blocks.

How does a product get from lab to market?

Most medical research begins as academic work in universities, but researchers usually have to attract external funding to to conduct the sort of clinical testing that regulators require.

Any biotech company investing venture capital in a new technology will expect a return on their money. Stuart Hazell, former CEO of PanBio, identified three main barriers to investment:

  • Technology risk – Will the product work?
  • Market risk – Will enough people buy it?; and
  • Regulatory risk – Will the regulator approve it, or will the cost of testing be prohibitive?

Assuming the research has attracted funding, the scientists then prepare a submission to the regulator, including:

  • evidence that the product does what it is intended to do (identify cancer reliably);
  • quality control of manufacture (reproducible results); and
  • safety (the product has no adverse effects).

Perhaps the biggest issue, according to Brian Priestly from the Australian Centre for Human Health Risk Assessment, is whether the technology is to be used externally (on blood, saliva or urine samples) or internally (swallowed or injected).

For obvious reasons, the regulatory hurdles are much higher for the latter, and in the US, for example, it could increase the cost of clinical trials by ten to one hundred times. Because of the extreme cost of satisfying regulators – which is entirely justified in terms of the public health issues – most medical nanotechnologies never go beyond the experimental phase.

Can we afford nanotechnology?

For products that do get the green light, another concern is cost. Access to affordable healthcare is a critical issue, especially in the third world, and it’s a problem that won’t go away.

Tom Faunce from ANU noted that one of the implications of commercial partnerships is that research may be skewed towards applications for rich countries. Rather than developing technologies for diagnosis and treatment of disease in Africa or India, they will concentrate on something they can make profit on.

Research is expensive, and it makes sense that big biotech would focus on consumers in countries which can afford to pay. But it has the potential to leave third world consumers with second-class (or no) treatments.

And the public interest?

Most Australians know little or nothing about nanotechnology. It’s a buzzword that increasingly pops up in marketing of cosmetics, medicines, paints and even foods, but research from the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR) suggests that – while we feel positive about it – most of us have only a vague understanding of what it means.

Consumers Health Forum of Australia and tech foresight company Bridge8 are two organisations advocating the interests of health consumers and the general public. Bridge8 has been involved with the development of AccessNano, an Australian educational resource designed to introduce accessible and innovative science and technology into secondary school classrooms.

Despite the challenges, nanotechnology is here to stay. As one panellist noted, it took less than 57 years from Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA to the sequencing of the entire human genome. We are further ahead than we were a decade ago, and likely to be even further ahead in ten years’ time.

Science fiction may be reality sooner than you think.

Footage of the forum on the DIISR website. [Coming soon]


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