Nanotechnology: views of Scientists and Engineers
Bionanotechnology and nanomedicine
a) Comments on the definition
- There was support for the NNI and DTI
- 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
- 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
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
b) Current state of knowledge and
where is research going
- 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.
- 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
- Polymer macromolecular complexes for
the delivery of therapeutic proteins to their site
- 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
- 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
- Widespread use of nanoparticles in
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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