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The nanotech future is just beginning

Small science

ST. LOUIS- In a dim meeting room at the America's Center in St. Louis, two rows of armless stick figures splash across a projection screen. The figures, some upright and others upside down, look like two-tentacled squids lined up to tickle each other's feet. The stick figures represent lipids, the molecules that make up fat. In this picture, they line up to form a lipid bilayer, the material that makes up the membrane, or skin, of living cells. What the scientists at this symposium are learning about lipid bilayers could change the world.

Six scientists at the February convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)-the largest general science conference in the world-presented their individual versions of the stick-squid illustration and their own research in nano-biotechnology. By coating a nano-sized machine-say, a silicon chip smaller than a human cell-with a lipid bilayer, the scientists could trick a human cell into talking to the machine, maybe even into taking orders from it.

The names of these scientists-Jay Groves, Barbara Baird, and Atul Parikh, to name three-might one day make it into the history books. But for now, they are relative unknowns, even in the scientific community. At last month's AAAS event, planners scheduled their symposium four hours before the meeting's opening ceremonies. They may have been sharing groundbreaking science, but most of their conference colleagues were still arriving at the St. Louis airport.

Science-fiction writers and politicians have had more success drawing attention to nanotechnology. Michael Crichton's 2002 bestseller Prey featured a swarm of nano-robots gone berserk, controlling the minds and bodies of people for its own devious purposes. President George Bush included nanotechnology in a list of the "most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences" in his State of the Union address last month, and he proposed doubling its funding. Already federal funding for nanotechnology research has more than doubled to $1.05 billion in the last five years.

But what is nanotechnology and what promise does it hold?

Anyone in the market for an iPod knows that "nano-" has become a powerful marketing tool. In his newly released book, Nano-Hype, professor David Berube highlights companies such as NanoPierce Technologies, which changed its name to include "nano" even though it has nothing to do with nanotechnology.

The strategy works, Mr. Berube argues, because of the public's misunderstanding of real nanotechnology. The public thinks of it as something new and novel, when it is really the same old science-on a scale 1/800th the size of a human hair.

When a chemistry teacher draws concentric circles on the chalkboard to explain atoms, or a biology teacher holds up a model of a double helix to represent DNA, that's nanoscience. Nanotechnology is simply the most recent attempt to manipulate the basic building blocks of matter. So far, it has succeeded best in the clothing industry with the manufacture of stain-repellent material. Consumers can buy "nanopants," as the industry calls them, from Eddie Bauer, Gap, and Brooks Brothers.

Plotting the future of nanotechnology is more difficult. The 2003 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act established the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to coordinate the government's different nanotechnology programs. Sections of the act resemble the legislation that established NASA, with emphasis on "ensuring United States global leadership" and "ensuring that advances . . . bring about improvements in quality of life for all Americans." But as the government sends wagons of money to the nano-frontier, neither the scientists nor the politicians who support them know the extent to which nanotechnology will change life as we know it. Uncertainty in the laboratory, however, hasn't stopped a host of those on the outside from campaigning for their respective visions of a nano-future.

Human-techno interaction already is common in medical treatments and devices such as dialysis, prosthetic limbs, breast implants, and pacemakers, as scientists study and implement nanotechnology inside the human body to cure disease and extend life spans. Nano-biotechnology aims to make these interactions between humans and machines less invasive and cumbersome than in today's technology.

At Washington University's Siteman Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, researchers are developing nanoparticles that deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to tumors. The treatment could destroy tumors without exposing the rest of the body to the painful side effects of chemotherapy. The center was established in late 2005 and will begin clinical trials at the end of this year.

But the cancer center's fast turnaround does not reflect painstaking preliminary research, scientist Greg Lanza says. Mr. Lanza and the project's principal investigator, Samuel Wickline, spent more than 10 years figuring out which nanoparticles to use, what drugs they should carry, what kind of chemicals and proteins to coat them with, and how to track them in the body using MRI. And they aren't finished yet. The therapy they will test at the end of the year targets the vessels that send blood to a tumor. The treatment would not kill the cancer, but it could make the tumor more susceptible to chemotherapy and radiation by weakening its blood supply.

"We come with the experience of knowing how difficult it was, and knowing that things we thought were going to be easy were harder," Mr. Lanza said. "I know there is no 'A to Z' in one step."

Cancer research notoriously disappoints scientists and patients. Treatments that make perfect sense in theory fail in reality. The role of telomeres in cancer is a perfect example. Telomeres are like ticker tape printed with a repeating sequence of DNA, wrapped around the ends of every chromosome. Each time a cell divides, a little bit of the ticker tape is torn off. When the chromosome gets to the end of the ticker tape, it stops dividing.

Not surprisingly, cancerous cells usually have an abundance of the enzyme that makes telomeres, telomerase. Telomerase stops the ticker tape from tearing, so cells do not know when to stop dividing. Until 1999, many scientists thought getting rid of excess telomerase would cure cancer.

But when they tried the theory in mice, the telomere-deprived creatures still got cancer. Ron DePinho, a researcher on the experiment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, called the results mind-bending. They spawned an arm of cancer research devoted only to understanding exactly what telomeres and telomerase do.

"The bottom line is that it is really complex," he said at the time.

The case of the missing telomeres also explains the disconnect between nano-scientists-like Mr. Lanza-and nano-prophets, those who predict nanotechnology will bring about a utopian future.

In 2001, the National Science Foundation and other government agencies convened a meeting of nano-prophets to divine the ways nanotechnology could improve the human body and mind in the next 10 to 20 years. The meeting headlined representatives from the government, private sector, and academia, including Mihail Roco, a senior government adviser on nanotechnology, and Phillip Bond, undersecretary of commerce for technology.

After the meeting, the NSF published a 467-page document, "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance." It has been called both the scariest and the silliest government report ever printed.

Its authors predicted that in the next 10 to 20 years, nanotechnology would allow a broadband connection between the human brain and machines. It would enable new sports, art forms, and means of communication; allow the human body to resist stress, sleep deprivation, disease, and aging; and find ways to exploit the resources of the moon, Mars, or approaching asteroids. In short, nanotechnology will solve all the world's problems.

"The 21st century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment," Mr. Roco and another science adviser claimed in the report's introduction. "It may be that humanity would become like a single, distributed and interconnected 'brain.'"

The European Commission and the German Parliament criticized the U.S. report (called among nano-techies the Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno, or NBIC report) for being overly futuristic without considering societal and moral issues. In its own report, the German Parliament noted its bias toward a pseudo-scientific movement called transhumanism. Transhumanists believe science, including nanotechnology, will help humans transcend their mental and physical limitations, including pain and death.

"These ideas have bled into mainstream science technical thinking," says Nigel Cameron, director of the Center on Nanotechnology at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. Mr. Cameron works to bring together transhumanism's critics to voice their concerns. He cites the work of Kevin Warwick as one reason to take transhumanism seriously.

Mr. Warwick, a professor at the University of Reading in England, claims to have connected his central nervous system to a computer during a 2002 experiment. Doctors implanted a tiny electrical sensing device in a nerve in Mr. Warwick's left arm. The sensor sent and received signals between his central nervous system and a computer. According to Mr. Warwick's university website, the implant allowed him to control a mechanical hand with his own thoughts and movements. He also sent neural signals to a simpler implant in his wife, who felt sensation in her arm as a result.

Mr. Warwick explained his worldview in a 2000 column in Wired: "I was born human. But this was an accident of fate-a condition merely of time and place. I believe it's something we have the power to change."

Mr. Cameron points to Mr. Warwick's experiment as evidence the human-computer connection envisioned in the NBIC report could happen. But will it?

Although the NBIC report's authors made recommendations on government policy, there is little evidence they had much influence. The subsequent act that established the NNI instead requires research on the social, legal and environmental concerns about "enhancing human intelligence." Nowhere does the act, or the initiative's strategic plan, list civilian human enhancement as a priority. (Department of Defense research on human enhancement for soldiers was ongoing before the NBIC report came out.)

NNI spokeswoman Cate Alexander told WORLD that the report "is not an NNI output and is not indicative of the NNI agenda."

For now, it seems the people with the most direct influence on nanotechnology are the scientists actually doing the research. And scientists have a way of surprising the public. When a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher announced he had isolated human embryonic stem cells in 1998, it was almost three years before the president announced a policy limiting funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Congress continues to debate whether to expand or refine Mr. Bush's policy.

David Guston, director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University, wants to help nanotechnology avoid a mess like the stem-cell debacle. At the AAAS meeting, he explained the center's plans to scour scientific journals and interview researchers about current and upcoming developments in nanotechnology. Center staff members would share the information with citizen groups and give their feedback to the scientists.

That could be an important time for those concerned with the ethical and real-life implications of nanotechnology to step forward. "There is so little interest in having this conversation in the churches. Basically people are pro-life, but they think, 'technology is wonderful and what's for dinner?'" said Mr. Cameron.

The "Real-Time Technology Assessment" project aims to help scientists incorporate the public's values in their decisions. At the least, it will help the public see what is coming before, as Mr. Guston put it, "out from the lab pops a technology that's relatively cleanly black-boxed and, oh, society has to deal with it."

Lynde Langdon

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.