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Rebuilding Things "Atom by Atom"

Chad Mirkin is a world leader in a field with potential that's near limitless: Nanotechnology. Governments, venture funds, and angel investors are pouring billions of dollars into the area, hoping that the ability to manipulate materials at the atomic level will produce revolutionary medicines, metals, and fuels.

Mirkin is director of Northwestern University's Institute for Nanotechnology, one of the field's research hot spots. He says while certain aspects of nano, such as a proliferation of nanosize robots, are overhyped, other breakthroughs are already happening. He recently talked from his Evanston (Ill.) office with BusinessWeek Senior Writer Stephen Baker. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: Nanotechnology involves the engineering of supersmall materials. Why does the fact that they're tiny make any difference?

A: Nanoscience is about redoing everything. Everything when miniaturized will be new. We now take what Mother Nature gives us. We take a tree, and we turn it into a table. We take a metal with conductivity, and we turn it into wires. The new approach is that you break everything down into building blocks and reassemble them.

You're going to see everything from stain resistance in clothing to high-tech medical diagnostic applications and revolutions in semiconductors. It means vastly more powerful computers. Even the cosmetic industry is interested in these materials. They can be used to make tailor-made cosmetics. Nanotechnology involves rebuilding the earth as we know it, atom by atom.

Q: What about hype? Are there areas where investors risk being sold a bill of goods?

A: Robotics. I'd love to see an article [saying] that nanotech is not about nanobots. There are almost no credible efforts that focus on that goal. There are certainly no credible business efforts. This [topic] is dominated by Hollywood and by some folks that aren't very informed.

Q: But there are concerns about nanoparticles creating environmental and health problems.

A: With any new material, there are always going to be concerns. Should you fear nanoparticles because they're small? You should respect them. Thousands of new chemicals are made every day in research labs. Just like nanoparticles, they might be the next cure for cancer, or they may have harmful side effects.

One of the issues is: How do you regulate nanotechnology? I say you treat it like any new material. If you use it in certain ways and in large quantities, it has to go through [Food & Drug Administration] clearance.

Q: Where should we expect to see big breakthroughs in nanotechnology?

A: One area is medical diagnostics. Consider nanoparticle diagnostics. These are materials, products, systems that will be on the market in the very short term, some of them this year. This is for accurate and immediate detection and diagnosis of disease.

When you go to a doctor now, they take blood or urine, send it to a lab. Days go by. In many respects, we're still in the Stone Ages. We need diagnostic systems that let you go to the point of care and get results immediately.

That's where nanomaterials are having a big impact. Say you want to screen the blood supply for HIV. We have tests that are six-orders of magnitude better than the current systems. It's a quantum leap. It really will change the way blood screening is done.

Q: How does it work?

A: Nanomaterials in this case are the probes used for the diagnosis. Tiny probes seek and find a particular target. These particles are decorated with DNA or a protein. That gives them specificity.

Some of these nanoengineered materials have fantastic properties. They bind much more selectively to targets. They also have catalytic properties. Once they bind, a reaction takes place on the surface that sends a signal.

Q: What are the chances that we'll see a Internet-style investment bubble in nanotechnology?

A: There's a fundamental difference. You can't develop a nanotech company based on an idea. You have to have credible intellectual property. Of course, you're going to see all kinds of promises, people jumping out of the woodwork.

My advice to the investor is to ask basic questions: Does it make sense? Why should it be better if it's nano? How is it going to compete with what's currently out there? If it requires an enormous leap of faith, think twice.

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