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Nanotechnology Q&A
Friday, 17 February 2012 17:14

At a recent seminar which discussed the ethics and challenges of nanotechnology being used to prolong life, a number of questions were posted to the panellists online that could not be covered during the live-streamed debate. Professor Mark Miodownik, a materials scientist at University College London and member of the panel at the seminar, picks up where the debate left off …

What defines a technology as being "nano" in the first place? Is the word "nano" used ad-hoc to pique peoples interest or does it mean something specific? Are (re)engineered cells or bacteria (for example) "nanotechnology"?

 "Nano" means a small part, a very very small part, a billionth to be precise. So nanotechnology is technology at the scale of a billionth of a metre. Its hard to get a sense of just how minuscule such technology is. If you take a look at one of the fine hairs on the back of your hand, this is one of the smallest structures we can see with the naked eye, and yet this is massive compared to a nanometre, 10,000 times bigger. Now imagine zooming further into your hand to explore the individual cells, these are invisible to your eye, but still 1,000 times bigger than a nanometer. Zoom into a cell and you find that it is something akin to a miniature city, full of dynamic structures, bustling transport routes and communication systems. These structures are still 100 times bigger than a nanometer. Zooming in further and you start to see the molecular machines that do the work in cells, the equivalent of the cars and people that make up a city. It is engineering at this scale that we call nanotechnology, whether it be in a cell, or in a mobile phone, or suspended in a face cream.

 

Why would you invest in nanotechnology rather than addressing more immediate problems such as: (i) developing new antibiotics to combat otherwise resistant bugs or (ii) investing in schemes to tackle childhood obesity?

You might also question why we spend billions of euros exploring space; there is no easy answer to understanding prioritisation of government science funding, except to say that it is about opinion, and so therefore the domain of politics. The UK government tends to fund science that it thinks will grow the economy and keep its citizens healthy. Nanotechnology, because it is so powerful, has the potential to do both, and for this reason is funded. The majority of medical science research in the UK is not funded by the government but by charities, and these set their own strategies for solving the problems they were set up to address. Personally I think the best argument for the investment in nanotechnology is a cultural one: science and engineering are part of our identity, and just as we appreciate the contemporary arts, we need to appreciate contemporary engineering, and it doesn't come more avant garde than nanotechnology.

 

What are the biological implications and risks of nanotechonology/devices, and at what scale can they be possibly interfaced or utilized, ie Organ -> Tissue -> Cell -> Organelle -> DNA?

Because nanotechnology operates at the smallest scales of our bodies, it is immensely powerful. We could, for example, design nanoparticles to infiltrate cancer cells and destroy them, or to reengineer the capabilities of diseased livers and kidneys from the inside, cell by cell. This is not so different from how drugs work, operating at the molecular level, nanotechnology just gives us a more sophisticated molecular toolkit. Of course there are dangers with this approach and it is important to say that nanotechnology as applied to human health is regulated just like all medicines. The system is not foolproof, but nanotechnologies are tested in the same way that all the medicines and surgical procedures are tested. When we talk about risk though we also have to consider the risks of not developing nanotechnology, talk to anyone on dialysis or waiting for a transplant, and you start to realise that there are millions of ill people for whom this technology is their best hope of a normal life.

 

If nanotechnology delivers on its potential in healthcare this would be great for individuals but as a society I am not so sure. I am concerned that nanotechnology in medical applications will contribute to unsustainable levels of human population. Set in the wider context, it seems that science (at least in this area) is perhaps advancing faster than we can respond effectively as a society. I would like to know your thoughts on this issue and do you agree that more attention should be directed towards the ethical, policy and societal challenges/opportunities nanotechnology will bring?

The 21st century is likely to be the century in which we apply nanotechnology to ourselves and make it possible to re-engineer the human body. This has, of course, massive ethical and societal implications that we must not ignore. The problem though for the scientists and engineers working on nanotechnology is that most progress in this field is uncontroversial and leads to better outcomes for individual patients, but this same science also makes some things possible that are abhorrent to some or all of society, for instance the development of artificial life. Handling this dilemma is something that we need to have a public discussion about, there needs to be a sense that the public has given its permission to develop nanotechnology, that it has a central place in our culture.

 

Are you really sure we need to prolong life? Why not just live it to the full?

The life we are hoping to prolong is that of your baby perhaps, carried in the womb for nine months and then diagnosed with a rare disease that is incurable and means that the baby will die. Of course in some ways this baby has a chance to live their short life to the full, but it seems a little unfair if we could do something about it. If you were not related to this baby you might say that there are plenty of babies in the world and, although it is of course a tragedy, it is "natural".  But what is natural? Our current life expectancy is not natural, it is the result of technology. My mother is dying at the age of 74, maybe you might say she lived life to the full, but many would say that  dying without being able to watch her grandchildren grow up is certainly not that. Life is not fair that is for sure, but more life is not a sin.


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