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Experts predict a nanotech revolution in medicine

American Association For The Advancement Of Science (AAAS) : 14 July, 2006  (Company News)
A panel of top nanotechnology researchers convened by EurekAlert! predicted Wednesday that nanotechnology could have a dramatic impact on medical care in the next 20 years, and they urged their colleagues to help educate the public about the novel treatments to come.
At an online forum, the researchers said that manufactured molecules could have an array of medical uses, from cancer treatments to helping restore lost vision to genetic therapy. And in the long term, they could teach us more about the natural workings of biology.

'It is clear even now in the very early stage of the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology that tremendous positive impacts on medicine and health care will result from nanotechnology in the future,' said Richard Siegel, director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.

While it remains difficult to know exactly how large the impact will be, Siegel added, 'even today we see a number of examples of potential benefits that may result. Given sustained and increased funding by the federal and state governments and by industry, these developments will go forward and greatly increase the future benefits to society.'

Siegel was joined in the online chat by Dr. James R. Baker Jr., who established the Center for Biologic Nanotechnology at the University of Michigan and by Jeffery Schloss, who coordinates the development of nanotechnology strategy for the National Institutes of Health and serves as program director for technology development with the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The two-hour forum was the second in a monthly series organized by EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS, and underwritten by the William T. Golden Endowment Fund for Program Innovation. The full text of the online chat is available here.

In simple terms, nanotechnology is the process of building industrial or medical products in the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Nanotech has drawn enormous interest from industry and the medical fields, and generated copious news coverage, because of its many promising applications. It already is used to make sunscreen and stain-resistant cloth, and could someday be used in sensors to detect the presence of chemical or biological agents and to construct more effective bullet-proof vests.

Siegel, Baker and Schloss were unanimous in their optimism that developments in nanotechnology could bring great improvements in medical care.

For example, Baker said, artificial vision systems under development at the University of Southern California offer the potential to replace the retina with artificial photo receptors. The process uses nano-scale electrodes linked to different cells in the brain to produce visual images. In fact, 'it's been tried in a few people,' Schloss added. 'It's very early work with a reasonable amount of success, in other words, it's not just a lab device.'

Or nanotechnology could be used in the treatment of tumors. Baker said a fluorescent nanoparticle conceivably could be injected into the body and used to identify tumors at a much earlier stage, leading to earlier medical intervention. And, he said, manufactured molecules 'might offer the potential for the induction of anti-tumor therapeutics in and of themselves through selective release of drugs or physical disruption of tumor cells.'

In turn, such treatments could lower the cost of medical care, Baker said. To diagnose a tumor, he explained, 'we often have to use many different, expensive imaging studies, followed up by surgical procedures. If we can replace this with a nanomaterial that could give a real-time diagnosis and allow earlier treatment of the disease before it becomes critical, we can save money in both the diagnostic and the therapeutic arena.'

Schloss said research is underway in the use of nanotechnology to sequence DNA. 'This is an exciting area because it would be a completely revolutionary technology approach while at the same time, requiring substantive advances in physics and chemistry. The results could ultimately change the way we do experimental biology as well as changing the way we deliver healthcare,' Schloss said. 'If we could really sequence the DNA of individuals or extract the majority of relevant genomic information from individuals, our understanding of disease and health would be advanced and our ability to tune therapies to the individual would be enabled.'

The researchers acknowledged that the popular conception of nanotechnology is not always so rosy. For example, in his 2002 novel 'Prey,' best-selling author Michael Crichton posits an experiment gone badly awry, leading to the release of a swarm of micro-robotic nanoparticles that is self-sustaining, self-reproducing, and deadly. Now the book is being turned into a movie.

'I think people need to remember that 'Prey' is truly science fiction,' said Baker. 'While there obviously are concerns for adverse problems that could occur from nanotechnology, they should be directed towards rational concerns and the idea that nanomachines would coalesce to attack and eat humans is not rational.'

But given the revolutionary characteristics of nanomaterials, one reporter questioned whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration built adequate precautions into its testing and approval process, especially as some nanomaterials already have been approved for use under a process largely geared for more conventional medicines.

Baker acknowledged that 'nanomaterials provide a challenge to regulatory agencies.' But he insisted that the FDA's approach has been 'aggressive,' and noted that in March the agency will hold a national conference in Washington, D.C., to address the challenges.

Siegel suggested that public attention to nanotechnology, even when it is skeptical, can provide an opportunity for science. 'It's important for the scientific community to use this heightened awareness of nanotechnology to help educate the public about the potential positive aspects of this field,' Siegel said, 'as well as some of the potential negative aspects which, of course, every new technology, from the advent of mechanical engines to the automobile to television, have engendered.'
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