Nanotechnology is the building of working devices, systems and materials molecule by molecule by manipulating matter measured in billionths of a meter. The research seeks to exploit the unique and powerful electrical, physical and chemical properties found at an infinitesimally small scale.
While legitimate risks and issues have been flagged, they can and should be addressed without a crippling moratorium being called for on budding research that promises vast improvement in the lives of five billion people in developing countries, according to medical ethics experts at the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics.
In an article to be published by the Institute of Physics' journal "Nanotechnology," and released Wednesday, Jan. 28 online at Nanotechweb.org, the JCB authors say the potential health, environmental and economic benefits for developing countries of nanotechnology (NT) include:
- Improved detection of cancer and HIV/AIDS by tagging biological molecules with nanometer-sized markers, avoiding in the process many drawbacks associated with organic dyes conventionally used to mark cells;
- Improved detection of tuberculosis with quantum dot optical biosensors. Development plans for a nanotech-based diagnostic kit to reduce the cost, time and the amount of blood required for TB tests was recently announced in India;
- Inexpensive miniaturized medical diagnostic devices easily used in remote regions;
- More effective delivery of drugs and vaccines packaged in nano-particles, allowing more precise targeting to areas of the body where medications are needed, thereby producing stronger responses with fewer side effects, possibly at lower cost;
- The ability to repair skeletal tissue damaged by traffic accidents, the so-called "unseen epidemic" of developing countries, using nanotech-based bone scaffolds;
- Better monitoring of soil and crop toxicity levels through enzyme biosensors;
- Improved water purification technologies;
- More effective clean-up of large oil spills.
"While there are legitimate risks that need to be managed, an exclusive focus on the risks will create another divide - the nano-divide - similar to the digital and genomics divides between industrialized and developing countries," says Dr. Peter Singer, Director of the JCB. "There is a failure adequately to consider and understand how nanotechnology can bring benefits to 5 billion people in developing countries."
Co-author Erin Court says the first-ever survey of nanotechnology research in select developing countries shows a surprising level of activity underway. The paper clusters developing countries into three groups based on levels of existing research activity and government support: "front-runners" (China, South Korea, India); "middle ground" (Thailand, Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, Chile); and "up and comers" (Argentina, Mexico).
The authors call for a new international network to assess emerging technologies for development, identify the potential risks and benefits of NT incorporating developed and developing world perspectives, and explore the effects of a potential 'nano-divide'.
Such a global network would serve as a focal point to commission and collect research results, promote awareness of the potential applications of NT for development, create new regulatory regimes (or build upon existing ones) for managing NT's risks and promoting global public goods, and provide a forum for all stakeholders - government, industry, academe and citizens groups - not just in developed but also developing countries, whose interests to date have been largely ignored.
Concerns that need consideration include: How long nanomaterials will remain in the environment? How readily will nanomaterials bind to environmental contaminants? Will these particles move up through the food chain and what will be their effect on humans? How will the incorporation of artificial materials into human systems affect health, security and privacy? Who will control the means of production and who will get to debate the risks and benefits? What will be the effects of military and corporate control over NT?
There are also potential risk management issues specific to developing countries: displacement of traditional markets, the imposition of foreign values, the fear that technological advances will be extraneous to development needs, and the lack of resources to establish, monitor and enforce safety regulations.
Co-author Abdallah Daar of the JCB says that "while overly apprehensive views and fear-mongering can prohibit serious progress, addressing the legitimate concerns associated with NT can foster public support and allow the technology to progress in a socially responsible manner."
"Will industrialized nations continue to invest in stain-resistant 'nano' pants, NT-based cosmetics and other products solely for the rich, or will NT's potential to improve lives in the developing world be seized?"
Although NT technology is just in its infancy, "now is the ideal time to explore its use for development," the authors conclude. "Opposition from Prince Charles, ETC group and others in North America and Europe should not be permitted to diminish the health, environmental and economic opportunities of the poor in Africa, Latin America and Asia."
University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics
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The JCB is a partnership among the University of Toronto and nine hospitals. It provides leadership in bioethics research, education, and clinical activities. Its vision is to be a model of interdisciplinary collaboration in order to create new knowledge and improve practices with respect to bioethics. The JCB does not advocate positions on specific issues, although its individual members may do so.
The goals of the JCB are:
- To foster interdisciplinary research and scholarship, link education to research, and disseminate research findings to improve policies and practices.
- To support undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate educational programs in bioethics.
- To support clinical ethics activities including continuing education for health care providers, ethics committees, ethics consultation, and projects to address specific issues arising in JCB hospitals.
- To foster collegial discussion of bioethics issues throughout the JCB participating institutions, and to serve as a resource for the media, policymakers, and community groups.