Nanotechnology and its applications are so small that it can be hard to get your head around, but there are more than 1,000 products with nanomaterials already on the market, so we'd better get a handle on this quick.
Nanoscale science and technology manipulate matter at the level of 1-300 nanometers (or billionths of a meter) and claim a seemingly amazing array of applications for medicine, technology, energy and food. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andrew Sheider's recent investigative series "The Nanotech Gamble" lays bare the potential health and environmental risks and extent to which largely unregulated nanotech products are already on the market, and in the food supply, without our knowledge.
Given the risks and speed with which nanotechnology is entering the marketplace, U.S. states are starting to explore what they can do in light of federal inaction. In testimony before the Minnesota state legislature, IATP's Steve Suppan outlines the regulatory holes at the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, which thus far have largely given nanotechnology a free ride.
On April 15, the University of Minnesota hosted Governing Nanobiotechnology: Reinventing Oversight in the 21st Century. Academics, private industry, public interest representatives and government regulators grappled with the particular regulatory challenges posed by nanotechnology (videos of presentations coming soon).
As Steve points out in his testimony to state legislators, traditional regulation targets pollutants partially in terms of volume: that approach won't work for nanotechnology. "The quantity of nanomaterials that may cause environmental and/or public health harm will be much smaller in volume than what [...] has traditionally been inventoried. Prioritizing when and where to monitor pollutants will be a difficult task because potential risks of nanomaterials are not indicated simply by their size but also by their configuration and shape."
When scientific advancement overtakes our ability to regulate it's time to take a step back. The U.S. government's National Nanotechnology Initiative spent an estimated $1.8 billion developing new nanotech products in 2009. Little more than one percent of that taxpayer investment is dedicated to research to protect consumers and nanotechnology workers from potential environental, health and safety hazards of nanotechnology products. This is an unacceptably nano-sized start to a huge regulatory challenge.
Nanopatch tipped to replace syringe :
Researchers have used nanotechnology to discover a far more effective and less painful vaccination technique than the syringe.
University of Queensland Professor Mark Kendall's bio engineering and nanotechnology team have developed the Nanopatch - which uses 100 times less vaccine than a syringe and is smaller than a postal stamp. The patch is tipped to revolutionise vaccination programs in both industrialised and developing nations, which must overcome issues with vaccine shortages and distribution.
Prof Kendall said being both painless and needle-free, the Nanopatch offers hope for those with needle-phobia, as well as improving the vaccination experience for young children. "The Nanopatch targeted specific antigen-presenting cells found in a narrow layer just beneath the skin surface and as a result we used less than one-hundredth of the dose used by a needle while stimulating a comparable immune response," Prof Kendall said, "Our result is 10 times better than the best results achieved by other delivery methods and does not require the use of other immune stimulants, called adjuvants, or multiple vaccinations."
He said developing nations would particularly benefit as it does not need refrigeration and can be administered by non-professionals. Despite its small size, the Nanopatch comprises several thousand densely packed projections invisible to the human eye.
The influenza vaccine was dry coated onto these projections and has already been tested on the skin of mice. "By using far less vaccine we believe that the Nanopatch will enable the vaccination of many more people, Prof Kendall said, "A government might provide vaccinations for a pandemic such as swine flu to be collected from a chemist or sent in the mail."
Prof Kendalls team includes researchers from UQ's Diamantina Institute for Cancer, Immunology and Metabolic Medicine and Faculty of Health Sciences, as well as the University of Melbourne. He said after about five years worth of work the project was at about the halfway point of hitting the market, with the next stage to be human clinical trials. "To the public this might seem like a long time, but in the vaccine world this is quite quick," he said.