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Nanotechnology: Less Dangerous, Potentially Life-Saving
Jamais Cascio, 28 Oct 05

There has been a flood of nanotechnology-related stories popping up of late; it's almost enough to make one suspect a major breakthrough was near. I found two recent reports, one about current research, the other about potential capabilities, particularly interesting. In the first, Rice University researchers have figured out how to reduce toxic effects of some nanoparticles; in the second, editors at discuss the direct medical applications of the emerging technology.

Concerns over the toxicity of nanoparticles are certainly valid, and remain an important line of research. A great deal of useful nanomaterial safety research is happening at Rice University, including the Nanotechnology Risks and Benefits Database. In an upcoming issue of Toxicology Letters, researchers at Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) report that water-soluble forms of carbon nanotubes can be rendered essentially nontoxic with minor chemical modifications:

In their native state, carbon nanotubes are insoluble, meaning they are incompatible with the water-based environment of living systems. Solubility is a key issue for medical applications, and researchers at Rice and elsewhere have developed processing methods that render nanotubes soluble. In particular, scientists are keen to exploit the fluorescent properties of carbon nanotubes for medical diagnostics. [...] In the current study, CBEN researchers exposed skin cell cultures to varying doses of four types of water-soluble single-walled carbon nanotubes, or SWNTs. The four included pure, undecorated SWNTs suspended in soapy solution and three forms of nanotubes that were rendered soluble via the attachment of the chemical subgroups hydrogen sulfite, sodium sulfite and carboxylic acid.

Unmodified SWNTs had a "cytotoxicity" measurement -- the dose at which 50% of affected cells die within 48 hours -- of 200 parts per billion. When modified, the nanotubes showed signs of far lower cytotoxicity even up to 2,000 parts per million.

More speculative is a paper from, an industry news website; the site's focus is generally on nanomaterials, and tends to be more dismissive of nano-scale assembly and "nano-factories." The paper, 10 Ways Nanotechnology Could Save Your Life, looks at the medical applications of nanotechnology. The ten all use nanoscale materials; no cholesterol-destroying nanobots to be found. The list ranges from the mundane to the startling, and each item includes a description of current research that could make it possible. MedGadget sums up the list:

In case anyone's wondering, the ten ways are: "faster, more accurate disease diagnosis," "therapies that attack your disease, not your body," "safer, more accurate MRI," "better protection from infection" (that one rhymes), "more powerful antibiotics," "more accurate, less invasive surgery," "safer drinking water," "better nutritional supplements," "better UV protection," and finally: "cleaner surfaces."

These are all applications of nanotech materials that could be available by the next decade, if not sooner. They pale in comparison to what might be possible when we do get to nano-assembly and nanofactories, but they'll do for now.

The paper is in Word format (which always strikes me as a bit odd), and is currently free to download. At some point soon, they'll start charging about $10 for it, so if you're interested, grab it now.

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That Word file is just a straight single column manuscript with no fancy formatting, a browser would have no trouble printing that as straight HTML. I wonder as well, why not just convert it to HTML?

Considering the rather tame nature of the report (Smarter bullets for chemotherapy, nanoscale cell tags, reactive surfaces that clean water....zzzzzz. All great, world changing stuff but a bit of a snoozer for someone looking for stuff like that nanocar from last week!) at least in comparison to Ray Kurzweil's stuff, I'm not really surprised they'd be using Word. Seems to be geared towards investment specialists and venture capital.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 28 Oct 05

Nanotechnology's big challenge is how to manufacture nanotech devices. Sounds like Chou's technique may be useful for fabrication of a wide range of nanotech devices notably including nanopore DNA sequencers. If Chou's technology only enables the construction of nanopore DNA sequencing devices that alone will make his technology extremely worthwhile. The ability to cheaply do full personal DNA sequencing would allow the collection of data on each person's DNA sequence. As a consequence the efforts to run down what each sequence variation does will be accelerated enormously. In addition to providing valuable information about the causes of almost all types of diseases detailed personal DNA sequence information will affect everything from mating choices to medical insurance to privacy.

Posted by: John Beale on 29 Oct 05

With respect and agreement to Pace's comment -- that the whitepaper is old news to those already on the cutting-edge -- I'd also like to point out the perspective of an ignorant college freshman (me!). For me, the file serves as an excellent overview of several exciting career areas I might try to aim my college education towards. It's informative especially when combined with the 3-part nanotech summary by WorldChanging itself that includes the more exotic possibilities.

So not only are such summaries good for educating venture capitalists; without the summaries, the interest of potential newcomers to the fields could be deterred (or delayed) by initial confusion amidst the details. I'm glad to be caught up better on the basics, then, even if it is old news ;-]

Posted by: A. G. on 29 Oct 05



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