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Nanomedicine: A matter of rhetoric?

Nanomedicine is no longer the remit of science fiction writers. Credit: MIKE GALLAGHER

Nanomedicine, like some other emerging multidisciplinary scientific fields, is not recognized and supported in its own right in Europe. That's according to a Forward Look Report on Nanomedicine1 published by the European Science Foundation. But is this a real problem or is it just semantics?

According to the report, nanomedicine aims at “ensuring the comprehensive monitoring, control, construction, repair, defence and improvement of all human biological systems, working from the molecular level using engineered devices and nanostructures, ultimately to achieve medical benefit.” With such a broad definition, whether nanomedicine should be treated differently from conventional medical research is unclear.

The report presents a broad framework for Europe's future direction with respect to nanomedicine research and funding, and a warning that potential benefits of nanomedicine will be lost without major investment and a clear long-term strategy. According to the report, the emphasis should be put on the fact that nanomedicines represent a new class of pharmaceuticals that require a new regulatory approach.

It also denounces the strong bias towards research with commercial potential: “in many cases the funding opportunities are often restricted by the requirement of an industrial partner”. But is such research not meant to have a strong applied component and therefore benefit from links with industry? Indeed, support for collaborations between academics and industry should be encouraged.

Clearly, scientists are worried about ensuring the long-term competitiveness of nanomedicine research and have been lobbying the European Commission for greater recognition, but with no success in getting the relevant terminology so far. Indeed, the next European funding scheme, the seventh Framework Programme (FP7), due to start in January 2007, does not distinguish nanomedicine per se. Instead, it defines areas of priority funding under 'nanotechnology' and 'healthcare' headings. Still, €250 million will be allocated to the 'health' part of the nanotechnology priority.

The fear of EU researchers is that Japanese and US competition may be ahead of the game. By comparison, funding has been allocated to nanomedicine projects in the United States though a five-year $144 million programme from the National Cancer Institute, started in 2004, and last year's $42 million scheme gives the National Institute of Health five years to actually set up four nanomedicine centres.

Arguably, good research will always be funded however it is labelled. Of course, in the current 'nano' fashion climate, a lot of the debate surrounding the recognition of nanomedicine as a bona fide field, has a lot to do with size and definitions2. And, even if nanomedicine does not officially feature on the priority list of European funding bodies, there is little compelling argument for separating nanomedicine from other medical or nano/biotech research. Surely, internal competition for funding is the only way for any field to emerge and maintain its edge. And no better proof is that nanomedicine is being funded in Europe too, even if it is under the nanotechnology label. Figures from Cientifica, a nanotechnology business intelligence company, show3 that in 2005, European governments financed nanotechnology — a significant slice of which would be devoted to medical research and applications — at a level of $1,794 million, as compared with $1,264 million in the US and $1,152 million in Japan.

In applied medical research, it is debatable whether innovations from nanomedicine have a harder time to make it into the market. Already some drugs are available that are modified versions of existing biotech drugs. Ultimately, although an estimated 130 nanotech-based drugs and delivery systems are currently being developed worldwide, a number of outstanding issues related to toxicity and environmental impact of nanoscale materials will have to be resolved (see page 245 of this issue) before regulatory agencies can approve further products.

The debate surrounding nanomedicine betrays the immaturity of the field rather than its lack of recognition. There is a strong need for more success stories. But as serious funding has only just started, it may take some time. What will ultimately determine the level of recognition, is the size of the market that nanomedicine applications can potentially reach within established sectors of the industry.


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    Where Has My money Gone?

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Nanomedicine: A matter of rhetoric?. Nature Mater 5, 243 (2006).

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