Date: April 1st, 2005
We are on the verge of a new age of discovery that would pique the curiosity of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. In the heavens, we have glimpsed a solar system outside of our own whose glimmers of light will tell us much about the molecules of the distant planets’ atmospheres. On earth, we have developed new tools to see, move, and actually change the properties of molecules around us—and in us.
And this has led to tantalizing questions. What if doctors could search out and destroy the very first cancer cells that would otherwise have caused a tumor to develop in the body? What if a broken part of a cell could be removed and replaced with a miniature biological machine? What if pumps the size of molecules could be implanted to deliver life-saving medicines precisely when and where they are needed? These scenarios may sound unbelievable, but they are the long-term goals of the National Institutes of Health’s Roadmap Initiative. “We anticipate the Initiative will yield medical benefits as early as 10 years from now,” says Richard S. Fisher, Ph.D., the team leader of the project.
To launch the Initiative, the NIH will fund three Nanomedicine Development Centers in 2005 and three more in 2006 around the country. Multidisciplinary teams including biologists, physicians, mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists will staff them. The NIH will be funding a new field; its drive is distinct from other projects such as the National Science Foundation’s support of institutions working in the more developed fields of nanotechnology.
Getting Precise with Nanomedicine
Nanomedicine, an offshoot of nanotechnology, refers to highly specific medical intervention at the molecular scale for curing disease or repairing damaged tissues, such as bone, muscle, or nerve. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, too small to be seen with a conventional lab microscope. It is at this size scale—about 100 nanometers or less--that biological molecules and structures inside living cells operate.
Nanotechnology involves the creation and use of materials and devices at the level of molecules and atoms. Research began with applications outside of medicine and is based on discoveries in physics and chemistry. It is essential to understand the physical and chemical properties of molecules or complexes of molecules in order to control them. The same holds true for the molecules and structures inside living tissues.
Researchers for the Roadmap must do two things: understand human cells, and then develop “tools” to design the devices to improve human health.
So far, they have begun to develop powerful tools to extensively categorize the properties of cells in vivid detail and have begun to gain insight into how intracellular structures and assemblies of molecules operate. “But we still have not been able to answer questions such as, “how many, how big, and how fast?” Fisher says. Scientists must answer these questions in order to build “nano” machines that are compatible with living tissues and can safely operate inside the body. When they do, they can then design better diagnostic tools and engineer structures for more specific treatments of disease and repair of tissues. This is an important component of the NIH Roadmap endeavor because these tools will be developed and applied not just for a single disease or particular type of cell but for a wide range of tissues and diseases.
The Ethical Argument
Scientists are also anxious that the public understands all the ramifications of nanomedicine and other areas of nanotechnology. They are sensitive to the ethical and social issues that will influence the direction of the revolutionary discoveries and want to anticipate public controversies that have shadowed new technologies like genetically modified organisms [GMO] and stem cell research. Already, there are some voices calling for a ban on nanotechnology—“this has been pretty much rejected by almost everyone because it doesn’t make much sense,” says Mike Treder, Executive Director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology in New York City.
Treder also rejects the idea that enhancing and extending life are equivalent to creating “supermen.” But he and his colleagues are keeping an open mind on these and other identified thorny questions to further their own understanding and educate the public. These challenges include assuring the fair distribution of the new therapies around the world, the environmental impact of people breathing nanoparticles, and possible sudden job displacements and the spread of tiny bio-weapons wrought by molecular manufacturing at the desktop level.
Nanomedicine will continue to be influenced by the application of the fundamental technology in other fields. The common bonds in these different explorations are the tiny dimensions in which they operate. On these small scales, particles can behave differently than they do when in larger form and can be the elements of new materials which can be stronger or lighter, or conduct heat and electricity in different ways. Nanomaterials are already in computer chips, CDs, mobile phones, stain resistant fabrics, and self-cleaning windows. The potential of nanotechnology stretches across areas as varied as healthcare, information technology, and energy storage. Governments and business are already investing in its development. But researchers like Wilson and Treder emphasize they want the public to become involved to assure honest and open debate as well as candor from the government and the industry.
A poll shows the public is only beginning to become aware of the new science. Organizations involved with aging issues will play a major role in engaging national attention.