Section of Nanotube
About the study
Final report
Government response
How the study worked
What's happening now
Chair & working group
Press & media coverage
Contact us
Useful links
Nanotechnology and Nanoscience The Royal Society

Nanotechnology: views of Scientists and Engineers

Bionanotechnology and nanomedicine

a) Comments on the definition
  • There was support for the NNI and DTI definitions.
  • However there was a need to recognise that the definition might evolve over time
  • It was suggested that it might be possible to use the dictionary definition of technology and add ‘nano’.
  • It was felt that there was a need to mention manipulation in the definition
  • One simple definition of nanotechnology is: ‘Nanotechnology is the application of nanoscience’
  • There was a lot of discussion about whether ‘useful’ is an appropriate word. People’s definition of whether an application is useful will vary. The response to the suggestion of replacing with ‘of benefit to mankind’ was that it was too anthropogenic and might exclude applications of benefit to the environment.
  • Nanoscience is not a new discipline but a new agenda that different disciplines can contribute to.

Specific comments in brackets:
Nanoscience is the study of matter (suggestion that ‘matter’ implied a physics bias to nanotechnology, suggest finding another term) at atomic and molecular scales (typically 0.1nm to 100nm), where properties differ significantly from those at larger scale.
Nanotechnology is the application of this knowledge to make useful (remove useful) materials, structures and devices (not obvious that this could relate to bionanotechnology so add: ‘, including biological and medical applications’).

“Nanoscience is the study of novel phenomena and properties of materials that occur at extremely small length scales – on the scale of atoms and molecules.”

“Nanotechnology is the application of nanoscale science, engineering and technology to produce novel materials and devices, including biological and medical applications.”

b) Current state of knowledge and where is research going

i) General

  • Research is strong in building up systems rather than breaking them down

ii) Targeting drug delivery

  • Lots of research is being undertaken into in vivo cellular uptake targets for drugs. This includes developing DNA delivery vehicles for gene therapy and the delivery of therapeutic proteins to their site of action.
  • We need to understand the barriers that control drug release and to be able to internally monitor the system.
  • Avoiding flocculation of such small particles in the body is a challenge
  • If we can target drugs using nanomaterials then we may be able to use drugs that failed previously as they were too toxic when delivered via conventional routes. This is highly relevant to cancer drugs.

iii) Tissue engineering

  • There will be a big demand for nanotechnology in tissue engineering, especially in areas such as cell therapy and organ regeneration.
  • Nano scaffolding for cells, response of cells to textured surfaces. Has relevance to implants (e.g. hips). The ability to suggest a pattern to cells is the key; embossing methods could be important.
  • As with drug delivery, biodegradability is the key and being able to tune this over time.

iv) Drug discovery

  • Focus is on designer drugs that are targeted to an individual’s medical profile.
  • Nanoarrays are used for screening. If there was an improved knowledge of cellular markers and systems biology, then we could use nano for ultra high throughput analysis.
  • The industry does not necessarily badge its work as nanotechnology but is active in the field.
  • These developments are reflected in miniaturization and lab-on-a-chip devices that allow rapid sample movement, reagent mixing and analysis.

v) Non-invasive imaging/monitoring

  • Research in non-invasive imaging/monitoring utilizing hollow spheres, including fullerenes and buckyballs. Quantum dots may be used in the future to look at a single cell providing we can get them in without destroying the cell. Non-invasive imaging could reduce number of animals used in testing.

vi) Hybrid biological/physical entities

  • Research is starting to produce hybrid biological/physical entities e.g. molecular motors. This is at the basic research level with little prospect of commercial applications in the near future. Current research programmes should provide a better understanding of the underlying biology – which is essential for future applications. Robustness and stability are a major challenge; in the future this area may impact on nanofluidics and lab-on-a-chip devices.

vi) Other

  • The development of nanocrystals as simple detection systems for bacteria.
  • Research into the effect of nanoscale particles on protein folding and structure, and in particular the possibility that proteins may be unfolded by nanometre scale particles.
  • Getting nanosytems/materials that match particular drugs is a challenge. Use of nanoparticle-based materials is not well developed
  • Nanotechnology has a role in sensors for environmental monitoring
c) Applications (current or next 2 years)
  • Polymer macromolecular complexes for the delivery of therapeutic proteins to their site of action
  • Microdroplets of the antibiotic Cyclosporin in micelle based systems
  • Oral vaccines based on nanoparticles are close to market, advantageously this avoids the need for injection
  • Super-paramagnetic crystals for diagnostics in healthcare
  • Nanocrystaline silver in wound dressings – on market
  • Hip joints with nanostructured covering containing anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Matrices for cell growth
  • Monolayers as biosensors
  • Biocompatible phospholipid monolayers
  • Use of quantum dots as analysis tools for drug screening
  • Self cleaning surfaces (e.g. glass)
  • Antifouling paints without bio-accumulating chemicals
  • Widespread use of nanoparticles in cosmetics
  • Microneedles for injection of vaccines & artificial tan at right level of skin;
  • Smart soap powders that remove only the stain and not the dye in the material.
  • Arrays of AFM cantilevers for multiple sensing and analysis applications, including environmental monitoring and health screening.
d) Long-term applications
  • Creating novel tissue engineering scaffolds for organ regeneration.
  • Gene therapy delivery, targeted delivery of DNA to the cell nucleus.
  • High throughput gene sequencing. Great value in being able to sequence a genome in half a day. But bioinformatics and data storage will need to develop at an equivalent rate for these benefits to be realised.
  • Connecting nanoelectronics with neurons. Utilization of body parameters for the control of devices, from the automated control of artificial limbs to mobile phones that detect willingness to accept a call and planes that can be controlled via brain impulses.
  • Big Pharma next 10-15 years. Designer drugs based on a person’s genotype. Also increased efficiency of screening techniques and less waste/use of solvents etc.
  • Great potential to increase energy efficiency (Smalley’s work).
  • Prospect for imaging systems based on moving microtubules over a surface.
  • The nanoscale research will also lead to a greater understanding of biology rather than have general applications. This highlights importance of not being governed by applications when setting research priorities.
  • Cochlea and retinal implants; integration of biology and Silicon devices.
e) Barriers to progress in nanotechnology
  • A lack of understanding of biological systems will slow many developments
  • Hype/oversimplification by biotech companies including university spin-offs. Pressure for universities to generate income through tech transfer means there are fewer people to take an independent view of some of the claims about progress.
  • Nanotechnology suffers from the problems that other interdisciplinary research areas face. UK funding is based on individual disciplines and also separates pure and applied fields – Research Councils need to have overlapping remits. It is difficult to attract people to a new field like nanotechnology as there is a perception of poor job security in the field. The Research Assessment Exercise is also hindering collaboration. Industry want graduates from specific disciplines and postdocs trained in interdisciplinary areas. There is concern that the UK will be unable to provide workforce that industry will need. In Asia they have identified the type of skills and number of people required and established appropriate university courses. Existing UK nanotech strategies don’t explain how the skills base will be provided.
  • Links with industry: It was felt that science needs to have close links with industry to turn nanoscience into nanotechnology. These close links tend to worry the public. There was the question of whether UK industry was aware of the potential of nanotechnology? Noted that pharmaceutical companies (that do recognise the potential) are unusual in investing 20% sales in R&D – for other companies it was 2-3%.
  • Funding – researchers could always use more quicker funding decisions needed to keep up with advances in field. It was thought that total EU funding for nanotech was equivalent to funding in the US.
  • Other concerns about funding include: whether funding for nanotechnology is new money or ‘recycled’ money; the fact that the full economic costs of research can’t be recovered and that there isn’t enough money for consumables on training studentships.
  • Infrastructure. Nanosci/tech is becoming ‘big science’ with large infrastructure requirements. This requires large amounts of money to sustain the infrastructure and enable continuity in staffing; platform grants will help.
  • Public perception/concerns. Community claims that nanotech will be very big. With any technology there will be the fear that possession of the technology gives power to a small number of people.
f) Science Fictions
  • Nanorobots – the biocomplexity of putting a nanorobot in the body to enter and repair cells has been massively overestimated. ‘We’ll never know enough to go in and cure a cell’. This scenario also fails to recognise that the emphasis in health care is on developing non-invasive techniques and essentially persuading the body to heal itself. Much of the discussions around the artificial life/nanotech interface are highly speculative.
  • Immortality – that nanotech will lead to immortality to allow death to become optional.
  • Drug targeting with high specificity is likely to be much more difficult than many predict: diagnostic applications may be achieved more readily, but drug delivery with integrated controlled release is a major challenge


© Copyright: The Royal Academy of Engineering
The Royal Society 2003
The Royal Academy of Engineering