One of the hottest trends in research laboratories worldwide involves studies being conducted on the nanoscale.
The nanotechnology industry focuses on finding small (very small) solutions to some of society's biggest problems, such as cures for cancer and other diseases, as well as healthcare applications such as bone and tissue replacement and burn treatment. The field's growth has been fueled by its potential in so many sectors as well as increasing public and private funding.
President Bush last week signed a bill that would allocate $3.7 billion over four years starting in fiscal 2005 to support nanotechnology research. The federal government provided $774 million in research support in fiscal 2003, ended Sept. 30, and has budgeted $849 million for the current fiscal year. That's in addition to the $697 million it allocated in fiscal 2002. Estimates of private spending to date range from $3 billion to $35 billion, with a precise number difficult to pinpoint because the science is so new and companies spring up and die off rapidly.
Despite the legions of studies and research projects under way, very few practical uses of nanotechnology are now on the market, and it will be years before the science's impact will be felt commercially, experts predict. Yet even while the failure rate for the current studies can be as high as 90%, there is no shortage of fervent believers in the potential for nanotechnology to revolutionize many industries, especially healthcare.
So far the most widely known nanotech applications are used in coatings, such as stain-resistant fabric and stronger sunscreens. However, technology research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that spending on "nanoenabled" services in healthcare could reach $180 billion by 2015.
"There is no precedent" for this type of science, says Girish Solanki, an industry manager of technical insights with Frost & Sullivan. "That's why we can expect that kind of failure rate."
New materials, new processes
Simply put, nanotechnology is the science of manipulating atoms and molecules to build new products, processes and treatments, as well as refine and transform current technologies and techniques. Nanotechnology "makes existing processes work better," Solanki says.
When a material's structure is rebuilt-atom by atom-its physical properties can change. Color, heat conductivity, strength and weight all can be manipulated.
At the nanoscale, "the rules of physics change," says Kristen Kulinowski, executive director of Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology in Houston. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. It would take roughly 80,000 nanometers to equal one human hair.)
The university was awarded a five-year federal grant in 2001 to start the center, which receives $2.5 million per year in funding. The center is examining how to produce nanostructured membranes to improve such environmental technologies as water filters and pollution- control devices. Its healthcare-related projects include improvements on drug delivery and bone and tissue replacement.
Jennifer West, a Rice bioengineering researcher whose work includes drug delivery, gene therapy and tissue engineering, had a study on "nanoshells" published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences just last month. The study shows that nanoshells, which are made of tiny particles of silica coated with gold, could be used to destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue unaffected.
Metal nanoshells are a class of nanoparticles that can absorb light at almost any wavelength, and their makeup can be manipulated to absorb more or less light. West found that designing the nanoshells to strongly absorb light in the near-infrared spectrum-a type of low-energy radiation not absorbed by living tissues-enables them to heat tumors. After injecting nanoshells into tumors growing in mice, the researchers exposed the cells to a near-infrared light source. Surrounding tissue in the mice was not harmed, but cancerous cells showed signs of irreversible heat damage and cell death in less than 10 minutes.
Nanoshells can target cancerous cells in two ways, Kulinowski says. They can be attached to an antibody and then bind with the markers of cancerous cells; or they can slip inside the cancerous cells, which are "leakier" or more porous than healthy cells, she says.
"That's one side benefit of them being so small," Kulinowski says.
"Nanotubes," graphite sheets bonded by carbon and wrapped into a cylinder, are known for their strength and durability. They're currently used to make tennis rackets stronger and lighter, but could be used for artificial limbs and perhaps a new generation of stents used to prop open arteries. The nanotubes are just a few nanometers thick but could measure up to a millimeter in length.
Two companies that are producing and selling nanotubes for research are Zyvex Corp. and Carbon Nanotechnologies. Richard Smalley, winner of a 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for nanotechnology research, is board chairman of Carbon Nanotechnologies. Smalley won the Nobel Prize for studies he conducted that led to the bundling of nanotubes, which he called nanoropes. Bundling the nanotubes allowed an easier way to study them.
Meanwhile, the Rice center also is examining hazards nanosize technologies could pose for public health and the environment. Many supporters of the science say this type of research will help nanotechnology steer clear of the current problems and fears involving genetically modified crops. Such products are under a European Union moratorium that is being challenged by the U.S.
One complication Rice researchers are examining involves research that has shown some nanosize materials have a tendency to clump, which could block respiratory passages and may mean there are risks of other vascular complications.
Operating on a small scale
Most of the companies working in the nanosector are small or startups, but larger ones are exploring nanotechnology and its possibilities, according to Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, a 4-year-old membership organization for nanotechnology companies. Large corporations such as DuPont, General Electric Co. and Johnson & Johnson are conducting nanotechnology research and likely would have acquisition interest in some of the startups.
About 250 companies worldwide belong to the alliance, and Modzelewski estimates there are about 1,100 companies working on nanotechnology applications. Of those companies about 5% are strictly healthcare-related, but others are working on applications that could have a role in healthcare, Modzelewski says.
For example, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque were working on nanotechnology applications for the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds the lab, when their work led to a discovery that holds promise for new disease treatments.
In their research, they developed a laser that is effective at the nanoscale. One benefit of the laser is that it can examine mitochondria-the power pack of a cell-while it's still functioning. Currently, in order to examine mitochondria, the sample has to be destroyed. Researchers believe malfunctions in the mitochondria can lead to Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Parkinson's diseases.
"In experiments in the lab," Sandia researcher Paul Gourley says, "we can actually see swelling of the mitochondria." The technology might lead to better protection of the nervous system, he says, which could advance research leading to a host of new treatments.
Another product, expected to be on the commercial market in about a year, is the Verigene ID, which was developed at Northwestern University and is being marketed by Nanosphere. The Verigene ID makes it possible to test patients for genetic mutations and a predisposition to diseases, such as different types of cancer and cystic fibrosis, says Nanosphere Chief Operating Officer Vijaya Vasista. After a drop of a patient's blood is placed on a glass slide and combined with gold-coated nanoparticles-microscopic probes that Nanosphere is marketing-the slide is placed in the Verigene ID device, which produces a positive or negative reading for certain markers.
Although privately held Nanosphere is selling the product for research only, the 3-year-old company has progressed faster than many other nanotech companies that are working on healthcare applications, Vasista says.
"In vitro nanotechnology applications are more immediate" because any nanoparticle materials that have to be inserted into the body would have to clear a gantlet of regulatory and product-safety roadblocks, Vasista says.
Some groups fear that when nanoparticles mix with the environment there could be dire consequences. They say there should be regulations on nanotechnology studies, more research on the impact any products could have on the environment and perhaps a new regulatory agency to handle advancements in the field.
Currently, there are no nanotechnology- specific regulations and it appears that oversight agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration will handle the innovations on a case-by-case basis, according to the ETC Group, a Canadian environmental and human rights advocacy group. That organization has called for a moratorium on all research until nanotechnology-specific regulations are established.
A report published in July by the Greenpeace Environmental Trust doesn't call for a halt on research but does say that releasing nanoproducts into the marketplace could be dangerous until all ramifications are known. "These materials should be considered hazardous until shown otherwise," according to the report.
Invasion of the nanorobots
Since the science is at such an early stage, observers say it's impossible to know how the body or environment will be affected once they interact with nanotechnology materials and machines. Some of the scarier scenarios involve the notion of armies of nanosize, self-replicating robots. In healthcare, some experts say such futuristic robots could cruise down the bloodstream scrubbing arteries of blockages or attacking other diseases. But others wonder whether those attacks could get out of hand.
It's these types of predictions that concern both critics and proponents of nanotechnology. Critics worry that nanotech inventions could run amok, leading to unforeseen and possibly uncontrollable circumstances. Supporters say that's nonsense, and that such fears only lead to misconceptions about the science.
Some observers warn of "a chilling scenario in which swarms of nanorobots equipped with memory, solar power generators and powerful software begin preying on living creatures and reproducing," Vicki Colvin, director of the Rice center, testified before the House Science Committee in April. "This may be gripping science fiction; it is not science fact. It does, however, highlight a reaction that could bring the growing nanotechnology industry to its knees."
Robert Freitas, author of a series of books called Nanomedicine, agrees with Colvin when it comes to thoughts of science fiction-type robots. However, he says the technology to create nanorobots is likely to exist in 15 or 20 years. In healthcare, he says one type of early nanorobot will be microbivores, or artificial white blood cells.
Mike Roco, senior adviser for the federal National Science Foundation, says he doesn't want testing to be stopped, but he also doesn't think questions and criticism should be dismissed.
"Ethical (issues) arrive anytime there is a new development," he says.
Roco also has grand visions for the impact of nanotechnology on healthcare, predicting the science will make it possible to perfect the process of growing new tissue and organs.
"The success is certain, but we don't know when," Roco says. He also predicts it could lead to many new weapons in the war against cancer. "In 15 years, all forms of cancer will be treatable," he predicts.
Roco also is the head of the Nanotechnology Initiative, which was established by the federal government in 2001. About $70 million of the 2004 federal allocation is earmarked to fund nanotechnology projects at the National Institutes of Health.
Even more funding will go to this type of research now that the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 has been enacted. That multibillion-dollar initiative would set up a government-run center for studying nanotechnology and would guarantee that the government funds nanotechnology with annual appropriations set by Congress.
Enactment of such legislation gives further validation to the field, which appears to be growing at an ever-accelerating rate.
"In the '80s it was biotech," Vasista says. "Now it's nanotechnology."
With all the hype, Vasista says she hears investors ask questions all the time about the legitimacy of nanotechnology. "They ask, `Is this another dot-com?' " she says. "No, it's a natural progression of science."