Response to request for initial views on the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering study on nanotechnology from the Medical Research Council (MRC)

MRC and Nanotechnology

The essence of nanotechnology is the creation and utilisation of materials and devices at the atomic and molecular level, and the exploitation of new phenomena and physical properties which emerge at the nanometre scale. Fabrication of, for example, semiconductor nanostructures has traditionally been achieved using a ‘top-down’ approach (reducing material by fine scale lithography, machining or etching to dimensions below ca.100nm) but another approach is the ‘bottom–up’ assembly of nanostructures by single atom or molecule manipulation using, for example, atomic force microscopy. More recently, attention has focused on processes that involve some degree of self-assembly and, in this regard, biological molecules (linear and rotary molecular motors, receptors, membrane channels) far exceed the capacity for self-assembly of inorganic molecules. The adoption and application of techniques or approaches originally developed in one discipline (e.g. chemistry) in other areas (e.g. cell engineering) has contributed to the rapid evolution of nanotechnology in the last decade.

Developments in nanotechnology have the potential to completely revolutionise many aspects of medicine and health care, including areas as diverse as biosensors (e.g. for continuous patient monitoring/new diagnostics), drug discovery and delivery, prosthetics and regenerative implants/transplants, and genomics. Importantly, nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary field involving nearly all the disciplines and, to maximise its potential, it is essential for researchers to work in a collaborative way and for funding agencies to facilitate such cross-fertilization.

MRC’s recognition of the potential and importance of nanotechnology for health is evidenced by both the level and forms of support that is has provided in this area. In May 2000, MRC organised a workshop on ‘Nanotechnology and Medicine’ to promote awareness of this new field and to discuss how and where developments might be applied more broadly in biomedical research. The workshop was attended by national and international scientists and representatives from the relevant Research Council, charities and industry. In response to the recommendations of the workshop and several reports on nanotechnology (from Foresight, the Institute of Physics and elsewhere), the MRC, EPSRC, BBSRC, MoD and DTI decided to set up two Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations (IRCs) in nanotechnology, one of which should have a strong bio-nanotechnology emphasis. These IRCs would be supported by ring-fenced funding for up to 6 years, and would then revert to conventional means of support (see below).

A number of areas of particular relevance to biology and medicine were highlighted in a call for proposals, including self-assembly, nanofabrication, metrology, nanostructured materials, molecular recognition and sensors. In recognition of the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology, bids were expected to involve a broad range of disciplines such as materials science, chemistry, physics, biology, engineering and applied mathematics across several Universities. Sixteeen outline bids were received. Five full proposals were invited and 2 IRCs awarded at the end of 2001 (MRC contribution - £3M over 6 years): (1) a nanotechnology IRC to Cambridge (with Bristol and UCL) and (2) a bio-nanotechnology IRC to Oxford (with Glasgow, York and NIMR). Of particular relevance to the MRC is the work of the Oxford IRC on molecular motors, functional proteins and DNA devices. In addition, MRC has co-funded (with EPSRC and BBSRC) an IRC in tissue engineering at the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool.

Recognising the need to build up capacity in this area, MRC made nanotechnology a ring-fenced strategic priority area for PhD studentships for two successive years and, to attract researchers from different disciplines, awarded 9 Discipline Hopping Awards related to nanotechnology. More recently, a Cooperative Group Grant (‘Enabling technologies in life science’) has been awarded to Dr John Colyer and colleagues at Leeds. Research within the grant includes the development of high density arrays and of tools to pre-screen therapeutic interventions, and atomic force microscopy studies in molecular recognition. Together with a number of Programme Grants in or related to nanotechnology, the total level of ‘indirect’ MRC funding for nanotechnology to the universities is ca. £36M.

Stem cells are an increasingly important area of nanomedicine/nanotechnology. MRC is taking the lead in developing the UK stem cell strategy and has secured £26M additional funding from SR2002 for stem cell research. In September 2002, MRC (with a 25% contribution from BBSRC) awarded a contract to host the UK Stem Cell Bank to the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control. On the training side, to date, MRC has itself funded 8 priority area studentships in stem cell research, 2 Clinical Training Fellowships and one Clinician Scientist Award. In collaboration with other funders, Council will be jointly funding a cadre of Stem Cell Career Development Fellowships (from October 2003).

In addition to the ‘indirect’ support detailed above, overall Council has also provided ca. £46M in direct support for nanomedicine/nanotechnology in its Units (including the Centre for Protein Engineering, the Laboratory of Molecular Medicine, NIMR, CSC, the UK Human Genome Resource Centre and MRC Mammalian Genetics Unit and the Human Genetics Unit). [Details of MRC funding are available on request].

MRC and the report

MRC welcomes and fully endorses the aims and objectives of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering study on nanotechnology. A good working definition of nanoscience and nanotechnology would be particularly helpful as the distinction (or rather lack of it) continues to be an issue for many stakeholders (including the funding agencies).

On the basis of the information provided to date, key issues for the MRC would be:

Medical Research Council (MRC)