Published online 5 September 2005 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news050905-2


Nanotechnology and health

Jenny Hogan joins scientists and politicians in Edinburgh to find out what the science of the very small can do for her well-being.

<blogentry><entrydate month='09' time='2:58' daynum='05' day='09' year='2005'/> Day 5: World round up


The title of the conference's final session was "What can we do at an international level?" and boasted speakers from India, South Africa, China, Japan and Russia (and someone representing the European Commission, of course). Every country in the world, it seems, wants in on the nano act.

South Africa's presentation was particularly inspirational. The delegate told us that they launched their nanotechnology strategy in 2003, with a two-prong focus: industrial wants, and societal needs. They are pursuing research that relates to cleaning water, supplying energy and protecting health. Programs include efforts to tackle three of the serious diseases that plague the African continent: malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS. It's good to know that nanomedicine might benefit some of the people who need it most.

The screens in the conference hall say "thank you, see you in 2007" - the date of the next Euronanoforum. Until then... good health.

</blogentry><blogentry><entrydate month='09' time='10:50' daynum='04' day='08' year='2005'/> Day 4: Campaigns versus cash

Yesterday afternoon, I flitted between two sessions: one on communication, the other on commercialization. Somewhat depressingly, the audience attendance seemed higher at the second.

So far, nanotechnology hasn't done so well in terms of communication of risk to the public. In the UK at least, newspaper headlines in the past few years have linked nanotech to fictional 'grey goo', which some suggest is what the world would be reduced to by self-replicating nanobots gone mad. Campaigning groups and Prince Charles' concern ensured some public anxiety. And while everyone is talking about how better to talk about nanotechnology (see 'What is there to fear from something so small?' ), it isn't clear they have succeeded. The session on this hot topic was held in a vast hall, presumably in anticipation of a big crowd, but the seats were sparsely populated.

The other session, on how to commercialize nanomedicine, seemed to be full of wide-eyed participants paying much more attention. The small room chosen for this session was stuffed. Among the speakers was Luis Mejia, from the Office of Technology Licensing at Stanford University. During his presentation, called "To Googlinity and beyond", he recalled how Larry Page had once wandered into his office with the idea for what became Google. But, before the dollar signs started to appear in the audience's eyes, he warned the hopeful entrepreneurs that only two or three in every hundred of the office's patents ever make any significant money. Still, you could see glimmers of hope in their eyes.

So are people really more interested in making money than in communicating the possible risks of nanotech? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

Attendance at this morning's early sessions was affected by an issue quite separate from fear and greed - today's low turnout is probably down to plain old exhaustion. The talks closed early yesterday so participants could attend an evening ceilidh - a lively, Scottish barn dance filled with fiddle music, stamping, clapping, skipping, leaping and swinging in formation. If I'd had a ticket, I would be too tired for a morning session too.

</blogentry><blogentry><entrydate month='09' time='4:56' daynum='04' day='08' year='2005'/> Day 4: Telling fairytales

A practicing psychiatrist has treated us to a rather odd if interesting discussion of nanotechnology. He claimed it was his right, as a psychiatrist, to say odd and extravagant things. He did.

In his talk, he compared the nature of nanotechnology to the make-up of a fairytale. Fairytales, he said, often involve small people with magical powers and mischievous characters. They also include magical objects that serve their masters. Nanotechnology, he argued, does too. (Although I presume we replace the people with particles, or something).

Another delegate made an insightful remark after a session on the ethics of nanotechnology was over. He pointed out that people presenting arguments on ethics take great care to explain that many nano-things already exist in our environment and so there’s nothing new and scary about it all. By contrast, researchers pitching for patents or funding go to great pains to tell us how novel and unique their inventions are. Surely they can’t have it both ways?

</blogentry><blogentry><entrydate month='09' time='12:20' daynum='03' day='07' year='2005'/> Day 3: Few words and lots of pictures

In days gone past, miners would send canaries down a mineshaft ahead of them to check the air was safe. If the bird was dead when they pulled the cage up, they would know to stay clear.

The modern day equivalent of the canary, according to Shimshon Belkin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, is a biochip that uses cells as toxin-sensors. He presented his group's work on this "canary on a chip" at this morning's session.

This turned out to be a nice label for a familiar idea. His group uses bacteria that have been genetically engineered to produce light when they are exposed to certain signals - such as a bacterial toxin or poison. Such bacteria, designed to respond to different compounds, are arranged on a biochip. A water or air sample is run through the chip, and then surrounding circuitry registers the light output and determines whether the sample is toxic.

Belkin said his group now has a working detector the size of a shoebox. Quite why this counts as "nanomedicine" I'm not sure.

But if Belkin won't be taking home any awards for the smallest nano-device, he is hoping to snag a prize for his presentation. He tells us that all speakers have been instructed to (take note):

*Choose a title that is both intriguing AND thought-provoking

*Use few word and lots of pictures to make your slides exciting

Belkin confessed that he was motivated to follow these instructions by the offer of a prize for the presentation with the most pictures and fewest words - a bottle of Scotland's fine malt whisky. "I have a nano-confession, I am very fond of whisky," he announced. There followed gratuitous pictures of canaries, chips (the potato kind) and a few random bagpipe players. Will it be enough? We'll have to wait and see.

</blogentry><blogentry><entrydate month='09' time='13:50' daynum='02' day='06' year='2005'/> Day 2: Cooking brain tumours

In a cartoon shown this morning a white rat sits on one hospital bed, talking to a human patient lying on another. The caption is something like this: "I go home today - they cured me using this new miracle drug. I'm afraid it'll be years before it's approved for human use."

Getting approval for any new drug or medical device is a long slow process. That's meant to protect patients' safety, but for researchers working in the emerging field of nanomedicine, the regulatory process is seen as a vast and time-consuming obstacle to getting any products to market.

I have heard this complaint from many speakers. A particular problem seems to be differences in regulation between the countries in Europe. I can understand how that kind of bureaucracy can be frustrating, but I would also vote for an approval process that is slow and safe over one that is quick and risky.

The cartoon came at the end of a presentation about using iron oxide nanoparticles to treat cancer. This, we are told, is the first anti-cancer therapy that uses nanoparticles to have entered clinical trials. It is being developed by a company called Magforce, based in Germany.

The approach seems very simple: the iron oxide nanoparticles are coated to prevent them irritating the immune system, then injected directly into the tumour. Next the patient is exposed to an alternating magnetic field, and the magnetic nanoparticles become very hot. Because they are localized to the tumour, the heating destroys the cancerous cells without harming the tissue around it.

And what happens to the nanoparticles? They seem to end up in the spleen, causing no adverse reaction.

Phase II clinical trials of this therapy on brain tumours began in January of this year, the company representative said, and will involve 65 patients. This follows successful phase I trials on 16 patients. Although it's too early to judge the long-term effectiveness of the treatment, the tumours in most of these patients were destroyed.

Remarkably, the speaker said the patients suffered no side effects - not even discomfort - as their brain tumours were scorched at 50-70 ºC. Apparently two patients even fell asleep during the process!

</blogentry><blogentry><entrydate month='09' time='17:00' daynum='02' day='06' year='2005'/> Day 2: This meeting is sponsored by...

This conference is over-run with journalists. Rarely I have met so many other science correspondents at such a specialist meeting. There are at least 50 here. The reason? This meeting is sponsored by the European Commission, and its pro-active press office have rounded up about 50 science reporters from outlets ranging from the daily newspapers of Portugal to Hungarian television channels and shipped them over to this far-flung corner of northern Europe. I'll have to get my elbows out to get interviews (at least until the EC takes them all home tomorrow).

</blogentry><blogentry><entrydate month='09' time='10.35' daynum='01' day='05' year='2005'/> Day 1: Off with a bang

The historic city of Edinburgh in Scotland is this week hosting hundreds of scientists and politicians discussing "Nanotechnology and the Health of the EU Citizen in 2020" at the aptly named EuroNanoForum 2005 meeting. Being an EU citizen myself, I'm keen to hear what they have to say.

This first day boasts a grey, drizzling morning. Bleary-eyed delegates are registering in the brightly lit entrance hall of the conference centre to collect their programs. I wonder how many were, like me, enjoying the spectacular fireworks that marked the end of the Edinburgh Festival last night. The event, famed for its theatre and comedy, drew to a close with classical music in the city's gardens synchronized to the crackle of fireworks launched over Edinburgh castle.

I'm waiting to see whether the week's meeting can start with a similar bang. First on the agenda of the five-day programme is a set of workshops. I've registered for the most general - a forward look at nanomedicine organized by the European Science Foundation. Right now, I have little idea what nanomedicine can do for people's health. Or why, as the name of the meeting suggests, we might have to wait until 2020 to enjoy the benefits. By lunchtime, I might be able to tell you...

</blogentry><blogentry><entrydate month='09' time='15.10' daynum='01' day='05' year='2005'/> Day 1: Hunting buffalo

Nanomedicine, explained one speaker this morning, should follow the principle of "find, fight and follow". It is, he elaborated, akin to Indians hunting buffalos but with very tiny arrows. A charming, but not particularly illuminating analogy.

The definition that the European Science Foundation's committee has come up with is a little clearer on explanation. Their two-year consultation concluded that "nanomedicine uses nano-sized tools for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of disease and to gain increased understanding of the complex underlying pathophysiology of disease". It was difficult, we are told, to find a form of words on which all participants could agree.


Fortunately, some of the speakers have examples of "nano-sized tools": tiny, dense DNA chips, sensors that use cantilevers finer than a fingernail to detect small concentrations of a compound, and miniscule needles that could be used for drug delivery. "Believe it or not, put needles like this onto your skin and it's meant to be completely painless," we are reassured.

Other applications that were mentioned use nano-sized particles, such as specks of matter that can drag a drug to its target, or that can be injected into the blood stream to improve the images produced by x-rays, or magnetic resonance imaging. These specks may be solid lumps of matter, membranes, or scrunched up polymers attached to antibodies. Readers of news@nature will have come across some of these ideas before, and some are already in clinical use (well before 2020!).

But what of the nanobots? Tiny machines that clean arteries or kill deviant cells is what the word 'nanomedicine' brings to my science-fiction fertilized mind. Someone mentioned the 'lab on a pill' being worked on at the University of Glasgow, which is a tiny device laden with chemical sensors and cameras that a patient can swallow. But much of what's exciting people here about nanomedicine is miniaturization of what used to be called chemistry and material science, rather than futuristic mini-robots.

I ask someone over lunch why these diverse tools and techniques needed to be brought together under a single name. They suggest that calling it nanomedicine encourages communication between groups of people that wouldn't otherwise share their skills. For people's health to benefit from nanotechnology, chemists, material scientists and engineers need to talk to each other, and engage with the pharmaceutical industry. Let's hope they do that here.