Nanotechnology brings risk, benefits

Than Tibbetts

Nanotechnology could someday result in drugs that act instantly, cancer treatments that attack tumors directly and chemical markers that track a single cell through the body.

But as with any emerging technology, risks run as deep as the rewards.

Nanoscale compounds – on the order of a millionth of a millimeter – behave much differently than compounds at ordinary scales.

The Nanotechnology-Biology Interface conference at Cowles Auditorium on Thursday looked at how these bleeding-edge technologies affect everything from health and safety hazards to government regulation and the insurance industry.

Ken Keller, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy, said the goal of the conference was to anticipate some of the consequences of developing and using nanotechnology.

Currently, more than 60 faculty members at the University are working on 100-plus nanotechnology projects, said Professor Steve Campbell of the University’s Nanotechnology Coordinating Office.

Campbell also echoed a problem discussed by many of the conferees: What constitutes nanotechnology?

That question has implications for many of the government agencies that would have oversight of nanotechnologies. In some cases, current federal law is not equipped to deal with the new technologies.

Karen Florini, senior attorney at Environmental Defense, said new nanotechnology substances might not fall under government regulation because they can be made from existing compounds, even though the process might completely change its properties.

She gave the example of carbon nanotubes and buckyballs – atomic-level spheres resembling soccer balls – compared with the diamond on her ring finger or the graphite in her pencil.

All are made of the same thing – carbon – but they would be treated as one substance, despite the fact that each has radically different properties.

Several speakers mentioned concerns about the toxicity of particles created with nanotechnology.

Because nanoparticles have much greater surface area, they are likely to be absorbed at a much higher rate and could behave in unexpected ways. In the case of clinical drugs, smaller doses might become toxic.

Nanoparticles are so small that in many cases, standard precautions such as gloves and masks are useless. The particles could simply slip through the spaces between latex molecules, for example.

The risks are not without benefits, however.

Robert Hoerr, president and chief executive officer of Nanocopoeia, a company founded on University-developed technology, said his company has worked on a promising anti-cancer drug that would not be possible without nanotechnology.

University professor Robert Seidel said nanotechnology has the potential to be another revolution in science, but as with other revolutions, caution is warranted.

“I think most people share the belief that Ö you have to have a balance of the potential of the technology with the risks, even though we don’t know the risks,” Seidel said.