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Who’s Afraid of Nanotechnology?

Originally Published MPMN January 2004

EDITOR'S PAGE

Who's Afraid of Nanotechnology?

What if there were machines that could make products that were not only cheap and plentiful, but also precision crafted? Devices would be free of all microscopic defects and extremely durable, improving them beyond all current expectations. 

Sound unbelievable? Not according to Eric Drexler, chairman of the Foresight Institute. He believes it can be done with nanotechnology. Nanomachines operate much like their large-scale counterparts. Their moving parts, however, are fashioned from a small number of atoms and held together by the power of their atomic bonds.

"The really big difference is that what you make with a molecular machine can be completely precise, down to the tiniest degree of detail that can exist in the world," Drexler says. "And that is because the moving parts are a million times smaller than the ones we're familiar with, they move a million times faster, just as a smaller tuning fork produces a higher pitch than a large one. On the molecular scale, you find it's reasonable to have a machine that does a million steps per second, a mechanical system that works at computer speeds." 

The potential for their use in developing medical devices is limitless. Within the next 10 years, complete medical diagnostic laboratories could be contained on 1-in. computer chips. Medical monitoring systems could be embedded in patients' bodies. An alarm would sound when a disease organism or a cancer cell is found.

Right now, Kodak and DuPont are producing organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) that could be used in medical devices. They are made of carbon-based polymers instead of semiconductors. Display screens made of OLEDs emit their own light. They are brighter, thinner, lighter, faster, and more energy-efficient than LCDs, and they can be viewed from any angle without losing their brightness or contrast.

Recognizing the importance of these and other products, last month President Bush signed into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. The bill earmarks $3.7 billion for four years of research. 

Industry leaders agree with the president about the value of this technology. "The long-term potential of nanotech will completely dwarf what we've seen from microelectronics, plastics, and steel combined," says Stanley Williams, head of the quantum research group at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories. 

So far, so good, right? That is, unless the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC) has its way. The group has called for a moratorium on the introduction of new products using nanoparticles. They would also like to ban laboratory research until the research community can agree on acceptable laboratory protocols in handling them. 

ETC believes that because quantum mechanics takes over at the nanoscale, there may be changes to a substance's conductivity, elasticity, reactivity, strength, color, and tolerance to temperature and pressure. Some nanoparticles can slip past immune systems and even cross through the blood-brain barrier undetected. This would be fine for drug delivery, but disastrous if the particles turn out to be toxic.

Wanting to proceed with caution is commendable, but in the case of medical devices, redundant. Developers of products created with nanotechnology will still be subject to the standards and regulations of FDA and international regulatory bodies. Products will have to be proved safe and effective before being approved for use. 

Nanotechnology has the potential to improve our lives in ways that we can't now possibly fully comprehend. Putting restrictions on developing it would be the wrong thing to do.

Susan Wallace
, Managing Editor

Copyright ©2004 Medical Product Manufacturing News

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