Societal and Policy Aspects of the Introduction of Nanotechnology in Healthcare

It is anticipated that applications of biomedical nanotechnology will lead to progress in medical science, principally in the areas of diagnosis of disease, bio-compatible materials and drug delivery systems. Improved in vitro diagnostic techniques employing molecular nanotechnology biosensors and biochips for DNA analysis are already available. Advances in biomedical engineering include biomimetic nanostructures for implants and tissue engineering techniques that offer, potentially, the growth of artificial organs and the regeneration of damaged nerve tissue. Therapeutic systems using nanopowders and carbon nanotubes for drug delivery and anticancer drugs targeted at tumour cells are being developed. This convergence of the physical and biological sciences at the nanoscale is expected to revolutionize medicine and healthcare, improving the quality and extending the length of life for a large number of patients.

Concern however has been expressed regarding the potential misuse of nanotechnology and the possible risks associated with its widespread application of adverse ecological and health effects due to nanoparticles and self replicating systems entering the environment and in the human body. Public acceptance of nanotechnology is likely to be strongly influenced by the perception of the associated risks. The precautionary principle should therefore be applied and adequate monitoring systems set up to determine the true extent of these risks. In addition, an effective dialogue needs to be promoted between physical, biological and social scientists and the medical profession, together with patient groups, lawyers and policy makers in order to establish an appropriate legal and ethical framework for research and development and the implementation of nanotechnology in healthcare.

D.G. Rickerby
Advisory Cell for Science and Technology
European Commission Joint Research Centre