Prosthetics are driven by thought. Targeted treatment for aggressive brain cancer. Soldiers with enhanced vision or bionic ears. This great technology sounds like science fiction, but it has become possible thanks to nanoparticles. And, like any great power, comes great responsibility.
“In medicine and other biological settings, nanotechnology is amazing and useful, but it can be dangerous if used inappropriately,” said Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) chemist Ashley Bradley, part of a research team that conducted a comprehensive survey of nanobiotechnology applications and policies.
Their research, now available at Health Securitywork to deduce a huge field of active nanotechnology in biological applications, draw attention to regulatory gaps, and offer areas for further consideration.
“In our research, we learned that there isn’t much global regulation yet,” said Bradley. “And we need to establish a common set of rules to know the ethical boundaries.”
Nanoparticles, The Big Difference
Nanoparticles are a group of molecules with different properties of a large number of the same substance. In medicine and other biological applications, this property allows nanoparticles to act as packaging that delivers treatments across the impenetrable cell wall and blood-brain barrier.
“You can think of the nanoparticles as a little bit like plastic around the grated cheese,” says PNNL chemist Kristin Omberg. “That makes it possible to get something perishable right where you want it, but after that you have to deal with a lot of substance where it wasn’t before.”
Unfortunately, dealing with nanoparticles in a new place is not easy. Carbon is a pencil, carbon nano conducts electricity. The same material may have different properties at the nanoscale, but most countries still regulate it the same as bulk materials, if the material is regulated at all.
For example, zinc oxide, a stable and non-reactive material as a pigment in white paint, is now accumulating in the oceans when used as nanoparticles in sunscreens, so an alternative sunscreen that is safe for coral reefs needs to be developed. And even though fats and lipids are not regulated, the researchers suggest which agencies may consider regulation if fats become a byproduct after treatment.
This article also lists national and international institutions, organizations and regulatory agencies interested in understanding how nanoparticles decompose or react in living organisms and the environmental life cycle of nanoparticles. Because nanobiotechnology encompasses materials science, biology, medicine, environmental science, and technology, these disparate research and regulatory disciplines must come together, often for the first time—to fully understand their impact on humans and the environment.
Dual Use: Good for Us, Bad for Us
Like any other rapidly growing field, there is a time lag between the promise of new advances and the possibility of unwanted uses.
“There are more applications than we thought,” says Bradley, who collects interesting nanobio examples such as Alzheimer’s treatment, permanent contact lenses, organ replacement, and enhanced muscle recovery, among others.
The article also highlights concerns about crossing the blood-brain barrier, mind-initiated computer control, and nano-capable DNA editing where researchers suggest more caution, questioning, and caution may be needed. These concerns cover everything from deep fundamental research and regulation to what Omberg calls the “tattoo-removal equivalent” if at-home DNA splicing efforts go south.
The researchers draw parallels with more established fields such as biosynthetics and pharmacology, which offer lessons to be learned from current concerns such as the unintended consequences of fentanyl and opioids. They believe the field also offers examples of innovative coordination between science and ethics, such as the IGEM bio-synthetic student competition, to think about not only how to manufacture, but also to shape the use and control of new technologies.
Omberg said the initial enthusiastic reviewers of the article contributed to its potential use and attention, indicating that experts in various fields recognize that ethical nanobiotechnology is a problem that must be addressed. “This is a train running. It’s sad that 10 years from now, we haven’t found a way to talk about it.”
Funding for the team’s research was supported by PNNL’s National Directorate of Biorisk Beyond the List Goals.