Mega Questions About Nanotech

Rice's Kristin Kulinowski on the thorny biological and environmental issues

An eclectic band of researchers is mapping out a new frontier of science known as nanotechnology. Ranging from biologists to chemists, chipmakers, and computer scientists, they're learning how to guide individual atoms as they combine into molecules and how to make materials that don't exist in nature. Someday, their work may lead to novel cancer treatments and drug-delivery systems, ultrastrong lightweight metals, and superconducting wires, among many other applications. Yet before business rushes headlong into this nano-tomorrow, an assessment of the risks to public health and the environment is critical. Battles over genetically modified foods, after all, have tainted the whole field of agricultural biotech -- a technology that promises to improve food production in poor countries. In the same way, fears about potential hazards from nanomaterials could harm nanotech research if they aren't addressed early on.

Kristen Kulinowski is uniquely positioned to sort fact from fiction in this nascent field. As a chemistry faculty member and executive director for education and public policy at the federally funded Center for Biological & Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University in Houston, she believes that nanotech scientists are applying lessons learned from past failures. Years in advance of major commercial production, university researchers are testing nanomaterials on living organisms. Meanwhile, the Food & Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are exploring regulations to help ensure that the commercialization of nanotech won't trigger any grim surprises.

BusinessWeek Industries Editor Adam Aston recently met with Kulinowski in Houston to discuss both the risks and the anticipated benefits of nanotechnology. Here are some edited excerpts of their conversation:

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

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 of nanomaterials 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 the science and policy communities in Washington. Likewise, reactions to positive stories can be overdone -- driving unrealistic expectations about miracle cures for diseases, or how soon new nanomaterials may be available.

What are the real risks of nanotech?

There are two broad categories of risk assessment going on right now. One is in biological systems -- starting with the effects on single-celled organisms on up to sophisticated animals such as vertebrates. For example, scientists are looking at how nanoparticles affect bacteria or how they accumulate in individual cells. The good news is we're finding some simple ways to control the degree of a particle's toxicity. 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 come up with a big picture. Relatively few multiyear studies have been completed. Some show that the body can process and excrete nanoparticles with no trouble. Others show that high concentrations of these particles can cause cellular damage. As in drug studies, the question is partly: How much is too much?

The second major category looks at the environment. Do nanomaterials accumulate in water or the earth, and if so, do they 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 the 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 life cycle from when they're made in the factory to when the products they're put in are discarded?

Where does this discovery process stand?

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 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 to create a community of scientists and engineers large enough to allow them to share their work and speed the learning process. We're basically spawning a new area of research.

How does the evolution of nanotech compare with the growth of biotech?

There's a good model to refer to 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 approach to technology development.

Are there negative examples?

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 relatively cheap and plentiful?

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

How long will it be before we see some of the advances that nanotech promises?

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.

What applications will come first?

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 headline, backed up by a solid body of peer-reviewed science. The work of Rice professor Jennifer West involves injecting nanoparticles called nanoshells 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. Since these particles can be tuned to respond to different wavelengths of light -- depending on 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.

What about new materials?

Exciting stuff is happening there, too. Here at Rice, Richard Smalley [a 1996 Nobel laureate in chemistry] is scaling up production of single-walled carbon nanotubes. NASA is buying them 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 high-strength materials. But the processing technologies aren't easy.

What sorts of environmental applications are being explored?

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 objects, 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. Rice's 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.

Are we at a turning point?

I'm hopeful. The area where nano does have the potential to live up to its hype in the short term is biotech. That's probably going to happen soonest. Yet we won't see radical, 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.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.