Nanotechnology and Society

February 2016 Pulse

Scientists at the Harper Centre Research Institute, a partnership between Notre Dame and the Indiana University School of Medicine-South Bend, are attempting to improve the detection of breast cancer with the help of nanotechnology.

While mammography is a very effective means of diagnosing breast cancer, it is not perfect. The researchers at the Harper Centre seek to improve our ability to detect tumors by delivering a radiographic contrast agent to target abnormalities in breast tissues thereby making them more visible in mammography.

‘The contrast agent’, explains Professor Ryan K. Roeder, ‘uses gold nanoparticles which have molecules attached that target microcalculations, which are associated with breast cancer, or antibodies which target tumors themselves’.

Nanotechnology, also known as molecular manufacturing, is arguably one of the most exciting emerging fields in our century. This vast field includes the development of highly functional molecular systems, brain-machine interfaces, tissue engineering and recombinant genetic alterations in plant and animal (including human) systems.

The impact that these developments have on fields like materials, electronics and medicine is enormous. Nanotechnology can be used to provide target anticancer therapies, clean up toxins and oil spills and eliminate landfills.

While nanotechnology promises to enhance our quality of life in many exciting ways, it also raises serious and sometimes indomitable health, environmental and social concerns that could count against the benefits.

One of the greatest concerns surrounding nanoscience and nanotechnology is safety. While human activities such as mining, cooking and combustion have resulted in the emission of nanoparticles into the environment, the manufacture and use of nanoparticles introduces new risks.

The size, crystalline structure and reactivity of the nanoparticles are themselves of concern. Size changes the properties of the material, including toxicity. For example, while bulk gold is chemically inert and harmless, gold nanoparticles can be easily taken up by cells and accumulate at their nuclei.

Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to nanoparticles can have adverse consequences to the health of living organisms. In 2004, James Lam and his associates found that carbon nanotubes, one of the most commonly used engineered nanoparticles caused unusual lesions in the lungs of mice that interfered with oxygen absorption.

Nanoparticles can enter the body by various means – via the digestive tract (by ingestion and drinking), the respiratory tract and the skin. Once in the body, they can migrate to different parts, penetrating organs and even cells. These nanoparticles may disrupt normal cell functioning, triggering a toxic response.

Even more uncertain are the consequences to the environment once manufactured nanoparticles are released into it and once they bioaccumulate in plants and animals. As Anne Ingeborg Nyhr and Roy Ambili Dalmo point out, ‘The concern about environmental effects is compounded by the fact that nanostructures and nanosystems can exhibit properties quite different from those of corresponding bulk materials’.

‘In the extreme case’, writes Deb Bennett-Woods, ‘there is even speculation that self-replicating “nanorobots” could initiate an ecological domino effect that could devastate the biosphere’.

In light of the potential harm that nanotechnology can inflict on human beings and the environment, ensuring that robust, comprehensive and honest risk-assessment is undertaken before embarking on its application is paramount. This is underscored in a UNESCO report on the ethics and politics of nanotechnology published in 2006.

Unfortunately, as the proportion of funding indicates, risk-assessment has not been given the emphasis it deserves. For example, according to its 2009 report, of its US$1.5 billion budget, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative allocated only 5% for risk-assessment research.

Rigorous and accurate risk assessment is in everyone’s interest.

This is because like all new technologies, nanotechnology has also inspired utopian and dystopian visions that have generated exaggerated hopes and fears. Without accurate and thorough assessment of actual and potential risks, the development of safe and beneficial nanotechnology may be hampered or harmful products may be irresponsibly endorsed.

But risk analysis does not only have to do with responsibility. It is also about trust.

As Christian ethicist, Dönal O’Mathüna has poignantly put it: ‘Risk assessment must incorporate not only the costs and benefits, but also the place of responsibility and the building of trust between society, industry, academia and government’.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.