N-A-N-O, the four letters that have conjured up much excitement, hope and even fear for the past few years, were the theme of discussion for a recent two-day conference in Brussels that brought together some 400 experts, including concerned groups, policy makers and researchers from across Europe. The purpose of the conference was to delve into how the continent could take the lead in all things 'nano.'
The two-day (19 - 20 October) conference 'European Forum on Nanosciences' was organised by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) with the support of the European Commission (EC), the European Parliament (EP), the ESF and the ERA-NET Consortium on Nanoscience in the European Research Area.
A few challenges and issues were highlighted but one underlying theme remained: nanotechnology has the power to transform healthcare and everyday lives but Europe will lose out to countries such as the US and Japan unless it can mount a coherent approach.
Instead of the usual self-congratulatory rhetoric and gushing about the blue-sky potential of nanotechnology, participants were treated to several topics by experts to deconstruct the myths, the challenges, and the future of the field with a European focus.
"The take-home message is: we really, really need a pan-European approach," stressed Ruth Duncan of the Centre for Polymer Therapeutics at Cardiff University, UK. "If we compare what we are doing here in Europe with Japan and the US we are somewhat fragmented."
In 2003 Duncan was working with the European Medical Research Councils (EMRC) one of the scientific unit of the European Science Foundation (ESF) to create a Forward Look programme on nanomedicines. Around the same time the National Cancer Institute in the US started to review treating cancer with nanotechnology. By September 2004 this had become a $144 million five-year plan to apply nanotechnology to cancer therapy for the US.
"We published the report in November 2005 for Forward Look and we are still talking about it and we still don't know what the likelihood will be," said Duncan.
Still she is sympathetic towards the problem that is facing Europe as funding sources for the research area usually draws from both the national and the European levels. "Europe is a very young common economic community so it is very difficult for everything to be put together or to be done quickly," she said.
This view is supported and shared by the president of the European Science Foundation (ESF), Ian Halliday. He also acknowledged that a more unifying approach for nanoscience is not without difficulties given the track record and nature of the European science community.
"Are you well organised? Are the right structures in place?" Halliday asked his audience which is made up mostly by scientists. "It's much easier to think about your own lab and thinking longer term is a challenge for everybody. How do we organise a European science model? There is a danger you will get into your own narrow specialisation."
The prime example of how narrow specialisation have already cost Europe's lead in nanoscience is evident in the healthcare field due to its 'international competitive' nature. This has led to the fragmentation of research activities from various European countries.
"Research might be going on in the UK which might be duplicated in Germany or in France whereas Canada and the US are much more organised," Duncan added.
The usage of liposomes in nanoscience was actually originated from Europe and was later licensed out to American companies and has since turned into a series of successful products. They include the anticancer therapy and polymer-coated liposome products. Also a European-developed nanoparticle has been expanded into a marketed drug by an American manufacturer.
Besides the lack of a more collaborative mindset, the tendency of scientists to exaggerate what nanoscience can achieve is also undermining the credibility in the field.
"There are a lot of different conferences with a nano badge but they aren't even talking about nanotechnology. It has just become a fashionable thing to do," said Duncan. "We need to engage with the general public and we need to talk more to politicians. We also need to communicate the realistic timeline from the laboratory to the clinic. The progression usually takes 10, 15 or possibly 20 years so it's not really fair for the scientists or the small companies to say 'within five years we will have a product.'"
It is understandable that researchers and industry players, especially from the medical field are eager to 'big talk' nanoscience as all signs indicate that nano medicine is set to become a lucrative business. According to Frost & Sullivan, a consulting company, drug discovery in the nanotechnology market in Europe has generated $174.2 million in 2005 and is expected to reach $545.4 million in 2012.
The figure is definitely encouraging but the reality is that nanotechnology-based solutions in drug discovery are still a long way from realisation. The challenge will be to ensure optimum safety and limited exposure, where the key elements for toxicity screening should include the physical and chemical characterisation of nano-materials and -particles, tissue cellular assays and animal studies.
Safety is an issue that has dogged the field of nanotechnology, with critics arguing nanoparticles used in electronics and other industries could pose a health risk if inhaled.
The potential of nanotechnology lies in its ability to operate on the same cellular level as the body's intricate biochemical processes that are involved in health and pathogenesis. It is beginning to make an impact on healthcare especially in diagnostic areas by being able to instantly detect protein biomarkers in a finger prick sample of blood, imaging agents that highlight biochemical processes in real time, and use techniques for delivering drugs to exactly where they are needed in the body at the right time and in sequence.
"Nanoscience might be about the small but it's a big issue," Janez Potocnik, the European Commissioner for Science and Research told the conference audience.
Nanoscience certainly is a big issue for a lot of researchers and the general public but it is still fraught with uncertainties. So far the overall impact of nanotechnology has been unclear as the advances that have been made are largely unrelated and nanomedicine is still not recognised as a formal discipline.
Communication and Education
In order to establish itself in the mainstream of science, nanoscience needs to improve its ability to communicate and educate, according to Elisa Molinari from the University of Modena and Giovanni Carrada from Comunicazione della Scienza in Italy.
Carrada, a participant from Comunicazione della Scienza in Italy, stated that Europe is more resistant to change compared to other continents. He argued that it is necessary for the science community to actively initiate communication with the general public including farmers and other lay people.
This idea of a more formalised way of communicating will eventually be implemented by the actors of tomorrow. Therefore education in the nano field is essential. Elisa Molinari of the University of Modena, Italy, noted that there is currently no single institution in charge of this research area and Europe will need about 300,000 to 400,000 personnel in the field between 2010 to 2015 while 2 million will be needed on a global scale.
"I think we need to have nanomedical education and we need communication to bring everybody together," commented Duncan. "The one thing that could drive things forward is to take everybody out of their individual boxes and we want more scientists than a huge layer of managers."
Europe's progress in nanoscience may be slow and unclear but there is at least definite movement. According to Duncan, the ESF-supported Forward Look report on nanomedicines has been engaging in dialogue with the European Commission and the newly established European Research Council to identify roles that these institutions can take on, in order to avoid any overlap and competition with one another.
"We have the right objectives in nanomedicine and we are now looking for things where we have more excellence than they (the US) do and as long as we start moving that agenda forward we might develop new therapeutics, imaging aids and diagnostics that are different," said Duncan. "But we just have to focus on excellence in the area to give us a competitive advantage."
Europe has never had problems with creating excellence in science or competitive advantages. However, the complex structure and interrelated dynamics of Europe has on many occasions hindered the region's growth in many areas in comparison to the US which operates via a more concentrated and central command unit to deal with big-picture policies.
"As someone who was an observer and was involved in the IT (information technology) debate in Europe for the past 30 years, I am very nervous on your behalf. For you, the nanoscience community, nothing much has changed," said Halliday at the closing of the two-day conference.
Professor Halliday, the president of ESF, is also the Chief Executive of SUPA (The Scottish Universities Physics Alliance) and he was the Chief Executive of the UK's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research from 1998 to 2005.
"Are you planning for success or failure? It's not obvious for an outsider and I am not sure I get a strong sense of what structure Europe should have?"