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Nanotech: Beyond the Hype -- and Fear

In recent years, an eclectic band of scientists has mapped out a new frontier known broadly as nanotechnology. Though they're from different traditions and methods, these explorers, who include biologists, chemists, physicists, chipmakers, and computational experts, have tackled the same basic question: how to control the building blocks of matter from the bottom up.

They're learning how to guide individual atoms as they combine to form molecules and, in turn, how to make materials -- molecule-by-molecule -- that don't exist in nature. Their work cuts across some of the hottest areas of science, including innovative drug-delivery systems, cancer treatments, ultrastrong lightweight metals, and mass-produced superconducting wires -- to name a few.

Nanotechnology is surrounded by hyperbole, for good reason. It arguably shows as much promise in both science and business as any other major technology of the past century, including nuclear energy in the 1950s or genetics in the 1990s. Yet before business rushes headlong into a nano-tomorrow, an assessment of the risks nanotechnology poses to public health and the environment needs to be done. Just as nuclear waste and the flap over genetically modified foods tainted the promise of what were supposed to be transforming technologies, many people are concerned that nanomaterials could create problems if introduced without thorough testing.

LESSONS LEARNED. Kristen Kulinowski is uniquely positioned to help separate nanotech hype from reality. As a chemistry faculty member and executive director for Education & Public Policy of the federally funded Center for Biological & Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University, she believes that scientists are applying the lessons learned from past disappointments. Well in advance of major commercial production, testing of nanomaterials on living organisms is under way in university labs. And already, federal agencies such as the Food & Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are exploring regulation that will help ensure that commercialized nanotech is more a dream than a nightmare.

Kulinowski does have concerns that in the near term -- before the basic science is even ironed out -- nanotech research could be derailed by outside factors. Already, nascent signs of dot-com style hucksterism are appearing, with companies making nanotech claims of dubious scientific merit. Conversely, Kulinowski adds, others are fearful of the perils of nanomaterials without understanding the underlying science.

BusinessWeek Industries Editor Adam Aston recently met Kulinowski in Houston, where she talked about some of nanotech's most promising areas and her commitment to help inform public understanding and policy this new area. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What worries you about the public's response to nanotechnology?

A: I'm worried about an overreaction to both the hype and the fear. Every time a research article comes out talking about a certain type of risk, a dozen high-profile media stories ring alarm bells but fail to explain all the nuances of the study -- that results need to be repeated, or that concentrations ofanomaterials used in lab studies are unlikely to occur in nature. This sort of alarmist coverage can affect lawmakers as well as the public.

So one of my jobs is to help inform science policymakers in Washington. Likewise, the reactions to positive stories can be overdone -- driving unrealistic expectations about miracle cures or how soon new nanomaterials may be available.

Q: What are the real risks?

A: There are two broad categories of risk assessment going on right now. One is in biological systems -- starting with the effects on individual cells and up to more sophisticated organisms such as vertebrate animals. There's a lot of work going on this area already -- looking at how nanoparticles affect bacteria or how they accumulate in cells, for example.

The good news is we're finding some simple ways to control the degree of a particle's toxicity, like sliding a dimmer switch on a lamp. This control means we can make the particle toxic only under certain desirable circumstances, such as when we want to cure a disease.

There needs to be much more work done before we can come up with a big picture. Relatively few full studies have been completed yet. Some show the body can process and excrete nanoparticles with no trouble. Others show that high concentrations of these particles can cause cellular damage. Similar to drug studies, the question is partly looking to answer the question, how much is too much?

The second major category looks at the environment. Do nanomaterials accumulate in water or the earth, and if so, dothey pose a risk? Are they changing the balance of a water supply in terms of bacteria. If we're making lots of nanoparticles and they become part of waste stream, what happens to them in the long run?

It's really about sustainability. Can we engineer our manufacturing processes and these materials to have an environmentally benign lifecycle from when they're made in the factory to when they're put in a landfill?

Q: Where are you in the research process?

A: When it was founded in 2001, CBEN was the first major effort to draw attention to proactive, responsible nanotech development. Since then, the EPA, the National Science Foundation [which funds the CBEN], and the Defense Dept. have come up with focused programs to study the impacts of nanotech from an engineering perspective. All these efforts are helping create a community of scientists and engineers large enough to share their work and to help speed up the learning process. We're basically spawning a new area of research.

Q: How does the evolution of nanotech compare with the growth of biotech in recent years?

A: There's a good model to refer too in the human genome project. They anticipated that exploration of the human genome could result in thorny public concerns -- ethical, legal, and cultural. So they set aside 3% to 5% of federal research dollars to fund the study of these issues and to communicate with the public and encourage lots of openness and transparency. They were really our model for a proactive approcah to technology development.

Q: Are there negative examples?

A: Sure. There's the not-so-successful story of genetically modified foods and organisms. No matter how innovative they were -- or good or bad -- these new seeds were foisted on a public not convinced of their benefit. The agribusinesses certainly saw the benefit of these technologies -- to profit from more seed sales -- and they thought that was enough. Yet they didn't consider the public's perspective: Why as a consumer do I want these different kinds of seeds, especially if food is already cheap and plentiful?

The industry didn't do a good enough job conveying the benefits. What cropped up in the absence of that public dialog was heightened concern over the risks. Now, sales of genetically modified foods are restricted overseas. Arguably, better education of the public could have prevented this backlash. This bad decision cost them billions in sales in Europe, at least in the short term.

Q: How long will it take before we begin to see some of the advances that nanotech may deliver?

A: That's hard to answer. It won't be overnight -- and that's important to keep in mind. The process of laboratory science is sometimes painstaking. But within three to five years, we'll have a better understanding of how to coat or chemically alter nanoparticles to reduce their toxicity to the body, which will allow us to broaden their use for disease diagnosis and for drug delivery.

Also within that time, we'll understand better how to not have them gunk up the environment. We're going to see the first publications in this area in the coming year.

Q: What nanotech applications will we see first?

A: Biomedical applications are likely to be some of the earliest. In cancer therapy, the first clinical trials will be going on soon. "Nano cures cancer!" -- I can't wait to see that headlines, backed up by a solid body of peer-reviewed science. The work of professor Jennifer West involves injecting nanoparticles into the body, where they naturally concentrate in tumor sites because tumors are very "leaky" -- there's a lot of blood flow into nearby tissue.

Because these particles can be tuned to respond to different wavelengths of light -- depending their size -- they can be engineered to absorb a form of light that passes through healthy tissue but that can heat up the nanoshells to kill the cancer. Tests have already been done here at Rice.

Q: What about new materials?

A: Exciting stuff is happening there, too. Here at Rice, Richard Smalley [a 1996 Nobel laureate in chemistry] is scaling up the production of single-walled carbon nanotubes. NASA is buying them in gram amounts to study for use in the space program because they're so strong and light. Smalley is interested in fine-tuning the production process so that each batch will produce only the type and size of tube needed for a particular application.

If he can get this recipe right, there's evidence that single-walled carbon nanotubes would make excellent superconductors. But the processing technologies aren't easy.

Q: What sorts of environmental applications are being explored?

A: Well, think about water. As my colleague, professor Mark Wiesner, likes to point out, right now we're using Victorian-era technology to clean and purify our water supplies. He's working on making nanostructured water-filtration membranes that could solve a lot of the world's drinking-water problems.

These are basically filters with pores so small that you can let some molecules pass through -- say water -- while keeping out larger particles, such as bacteria. These sorts of membranes are made today using different materials, but nano-based materials may be more effective and ultimately cheaper.

Another area is remediation of pollution. Here at Rice, for example, professor Michael Wong, is working on nanomaterials that will harness the power of the sun to help break down volatile organic chemicals. So you could go into a Superfund site and throw some nanocrystals in the water, and the light would help break down the pollutants.

Q: Are we at a turning point?

A: I'm hopeful. The area where nano does have the potential to live up to its hype in the short term is in biotech. That's probably going to happen soonest. Yet we won't see radical new paradigm-shifting technologies for 3, or 5, or even 15 years.

Overall, the wild hype is starting to die down. It has left in its wake a hunger for people to see real results: Where are the new medicines and new materials? Nano has to move beyond incremental improvements in consumer goods, like the nanoparticles in sunscreen or the waterproof nanocoating on textiles.

Years from now, nano could be the same as the idea of "Intel Inside" today. You buy a computer to write e-mail and surf the Web, not because of an Intel chip. But the Intel chip enables those other applications and offers the consumer confidence.

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