The possibility of these scenarios may be fast approaching with the aid of nanotechnology. Generally defined as working with parts smaller than 100 nm, nanotechnology is expected to spawn a revolution that will affect many industries, including medicine. But despite the hype, multimillion-dollar R&D, and rampant flow of ideas, few concepts are tangible—yet.
Many of the theories and research made possible by nanotechnology may not come to fruition for anywhere from 5 to 20 years from now, if at all. However, the mere prospect of these ideas has prompted the establishment and heavy funding of R&D organizations. Even the U.S. government has invested millions of dollars in advancing nanotechnology through its National Nanotechnology Initiative.
Researchers are focusing much of their attention on cancer detection, prevention, and treatment. Because of its ardent belief in nanotech solutions for cancer, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has established the NCI Alliance in Nanotechnology for Cancer. The group is “engaged in efforts to harness the power of nanotechnology to radically change the way we diagnose, treat, and prevent cancer,” according to its mission statement. The alliance will fund $144.3 million in R&D over the next five years.
Much of this sum will go toward the development of nanodevices, viewed as instrumental in the battle against cancer. Nanodevices operate on the molecular level and are often small enough to enter cells without disrupting the body’s natural state. The hope is that these devices will enable doctors to detect cancer and effectively treat the disease in its earliest stages. With objectives ranging from DNA mapping to tumor destruction, these devices could prevent or relieve human suffering.
Among the most talked about nanodevices is the nanotube. This carbon-based rod is predicted to have a number of capabilities, including marking and mapping mutations in DNA for predicting cancer, says the NCI.
Additionally, nanotubes are being championed as useful tools for everything from drug delivery to electronics. Physicists at the University of Pennsylvania used nanotubes to develop an electronic circuit, which they predict will be integral in making chemical sensors and high-speed microprocessors. Nanotubes are also undergoing tests as drug-delivery vehicles; a French and Italian research team successfully made nanotubes transport antifungal agents. And a report in the June 14, 2005, issue of the American Chemical Society’s journal, Chemistry of Materials, posited that an injected solution of nanotubes could alter the way in which broken bones are treated.
Similar to nanotubes, nanorobots are machines comprised of nanoscale parts, according to Robert Freitas, author of Nanomedicine. Theoretically, nanorobots would serve as internal soldiers of sorts. Many of them could be injected into the body at one time with an assigned task. The robots would then perform the task and leave the body.
Freitas’s example of a possible nanorobot is the “respirocyte.” In his model, the bot would act as an artificial mechanical red cell, releasing oxygen or carbon dioxide into the body in a controlled manner. To stabilize the body, the balance of gases would be measured by onboard sensors and released accordingly. Every action would be controlled by a built-in computer.
Some nanorobots may attack tumors. Other types could provide drug delivery to targeted areas. Despite their differences, all devices must have the ability to let doctors disable them if necessary. None should be able to self-replicate inside the body, according to Freitas and many other advocates of nanotechnology.
But to build these molecular-sized devices, precise equipment is imperative. Thus, nanotechnology will also be used to manufacture the nanodevices.
“Molecular manufacturing systems can be envisioned as factories operating at the nanometer level, including nanoscale conveyor belts and robotic arms bringing molecular parts together precisely, bonding them to form products with every atom in a precise, designed location,” explained Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute, in a 2003 hearing of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science.
Many experts in the nanotech field visualize these manufacturing systems as simpler systems than their full-sized counterparts, but equipped with the same capabilities in a smaller package. If realized, such systems would increase rapid prototyping capabilities while decreasing costs. Molecular manufacturing would result in microscopic computers, motors, and nanosensors—not to mention the planned lab-on-a-chip possibilities that could result from successful nanomanufacturing.
With all of its potential, nanotechnology seems to have infinite boundaries and positive applications. The drawback? An ongoing ethical debate.
Though nanotechnology could vastly improve global health, some critics remain leery of potential social implications. Whereas the impact of nanotechnology could be the eradication or control of common terminal diseases, its results also could be devastating. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, a nonprofit organization, emphasizes responsible use and the importance of keeping the public informed. The group cautions that a lack of proper education and collaboration during the advancement of nanotechnology could prompt the development of horrifying weapons of mass destruction. Or it could even enable a government to trace its population every movement, conversation, and thought. The result? A terrifying Big Brother–type regime.
A slew of other skeptics doubt the safety of nanoparticles in the human body. Since devices are still in the development stage, end results remain uncertain. There exists the possibility that nanorobots may be dangerous. In fact, Project Censored, a research group from Sonoma State University (Rohnert Park, CA; www.projectcensored.org) identified the relatively unchallenged positive slant on nanotechnology as a newsworthy issue in its yearbook, Censored: The News That Didn’t Make the News. Hailing from an article written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the topic was named one of 25 news stories of social significance that were overlooked, underreported, or self-censored by the national media.
In addition to physical threats, nanotechnology poses an ethical threat as well. Even prior to the actualization of these concepts, people are questioning them. Moral debates thrive. For instance, is life extension moral and will it lead to overpopulation? Will people use this technology to “play God”? And is it ethical to manipulate genes and alter the species? These are points of contention that will most likely become hot-button issues over time, if the current presence of these debates is any indication.
Though these concerns are legitimate, they come with uncharted territory. As with every new technology, there are risks. However, do the benefits outweigh the risks? If nanotechnology is used responsibly, as most nanotech agencies promote, the answer may be yes. The notion that we may be able to nip cancer in the bud, grow new organs, and reduce suffering is appealing to most people. In the case of nanotechnology, only time will tell how big an impact the very small will have.