Thursday, December 08, 2005


As with every single new development in technology, science or pretty much anything, there is always several stages that it seems to go through. Initial research and development where it is first proposed, then the overdone claims of the success of the technology and then the (somewhat) irrational fear that follows when everyone else realises something new is arriving. Such is the case with nanotechnology, which isn't quite the science-fiction ideal of very tiny robots building things out of thin air, but is the development of immensely fine structures at a small scale (like mini-protein switches for circuits). The technology does have a lot of promise but already is starting to draw some flack from the public, some of which is justified some of which is rather silly. For example, Prince Charles launched a small tirade against the 'unrestricted' use of nanotechnology bringing up the "grey goo" style concept of world mass destruction, which has been spread mainly by science fiction writers.

Of course the grey goo is basically a large set of replicating nanites that slowly eat their way through everything, as they madly replicate out of control until they swallow the planet and you with it. The concept is entirely bunk and is a gross misunderstanding of what the current 'nanotechnology' really means and not the one popularised in science fiction as I explained above. Just again so we're clear, nanotechnology in the current sense of the world doesn't involve little replicating robots, but is rather the fine scale manipulation of very small 'machines' like protein switches and structures like fibers at the nanoscale (very very tiny) level. What this sort of wierd comparison does demonstrate is we're well into the 'third' stage of new scientific developments, which is the 'irrational fear' part where people confuse science-fiction with science fact.

Some of the criticism against nanotechnology isn't all ridiculous notions of the worlds destruction at the hands of mad scientists, which is a fairly popular concept among fiction writers I have to admit, but is quite well grounded. Take this story from the New Zealand Herald I spotted this morning, discussing the use of nanotechnology although with a somewhat over emotional title, Tiny Technology Possibly Deadly. Some of the points that are raised are quite possible and definitely should be looked at during the future development of this technology:
Similar calls are being heard in America. At an Environmental Protection Agency nanotechnology workshop in October, Mihail Rocco, co-chair of the National Science and Technology Council, declared: "Federal agencies lack methods to monitor environmental releases of nanoparticles. Yet they can go to the brain and potentially cause damage."
Which is quite true, although I would imagine this would be something that would have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. In a similar manner to genetic engineering, you can't just use blanket laws on a technology just because it bears the same name. Each individual application is what must be assessed and obviously, different applications will have different kinds of risk associated with them. One of the things that I do wonder about with these kind of particles is how easily they would thwart barriers that otherwise block other 'nanoscale' dangers such as viruses. Again, concerns are raised in this area and highlighted in the article.
It states that, once in the blood, "nanoparticles can move practically unhindered through the entire body". During pregnancy, nanoparticles would be likely to enter the foetus.
The effects of such nanoparticles, particularly their accumulation in food chains and in the human body must be assessed quite thoroughly. As an immunologist, I'm acutely aware of the growing numbers of people with immune disorders such as allergies and nanoparticles may provide an additionally risk to these inviduals. Of course, the nanoparticle itself may not be allergenic, but it could provide attachment sites for other kinds of allergens and together could make an 'adjuvant' kind of structure boosting the effect an allergen antigen would have. Of course, that's just theorycraft off the top of my head and should be taken as such, but it could well be plausible and these sorts of questions will need to be answered with regards to the safety of these applications.

Sadly though, the article isn't entirely quoting people who make sensible statements as one Bob Phelps from GeneEthics comments wildly:
Bob Phelps, director of the Australian lobby group GeneEthics, says: "Each type of nanoparticle may be as deadly as asbestos."
While the statement may be true, it's somewhat wreckless and it doesn't really accomplish anything. If he were William Dembski, I'm certain he would describe this statement after the fact as a bit of 'street theatre', but it doesn't accomplish much except attempt to raise irrational fear over the technology. Compare the statement made above and the language used, to that from the more scientific sources listed in the article, which seem to have avoided making outlandish claims and are much more reasonable while still being cautious. What does the public tend to remember though? Usually the more outlandish claims (grey goo for example) are the ones that get remembered unfortunately (and nobody explains the actual technicalities to the public, one of the great failures of modern science I think actually).

This isn't to say that the article doesn't point out some of the, somewhat overblown claims of what nanotechnology will do for everyone.
Cancer cells could be destroyed by tiny silicon combs; "nanobots" could clear blocked blood vessels. Hydrogen-based fuel cells using "nanotubes" could allow cars to travel 8000km on a full tank. Minute solar cells in building facades and on road surfaces would produce cheap energy. Cancer cells could be destroyed by tiny silicon combs; "nanobots" could clear blocked blood vessels. Hydrogen-based fuel cells using "nanotubes" could allow cars to travel 8000km on a full tank. Minute solar cells in building facades and on road surfaces would produce cheap energy.
That's some highly impressive stuff I'm certain! Those claims are even more impressive than those made by the probiotics fellows I talked about earlier. In reality of course, such claims are probably not incorrect, but they are more than likely exaggerated as a sales pitch. Funding is competitive at the best of times and everyone talks up their particular research areas. In infectious diseases for example, it's not uncommon for researchers to 'talk up' the effects of their pet disease of study over others (although this is easier in some cases than others). It's the same in other areas as well, such as the early research into genetically engineered foods claiming that they could 'solve world food shortages' (among other things). The reality is quite a bit different than that however, as while the above claims may be true there will be two conditions that will determine their overall success.

The first is that much of those applications are years off and even when they are developed, they'll still be years off while full safety trials and the like are conducted on them. So it's going to be a long time before any of those sorts of applications ever see the light of day. The second is that they may not be quite as effective as proclaimed and will possibly act not on their own, but in concert with other technologies coming out (particularly like other solutions for cancer, like possibly vaccinations targeting NK-T cells). If they did of course achieve what they are claiming that would be a wonderful thing, but the most likely probability is that the emerging science of nanotechnology is probably a long way off getting anywhere near those sorts of claims. The only thing it has to survive now in order to get there is the 'irrational fear' stage of scientific development. Responsible decisions are what is required to both foster the growth of nanotechnology and ensure it doesn't get out of hand.