Brussels, 01 Mar 2005
There is optimism within the scientific community that the application of nanotechnology to the field of medicine can deliver significant breakthroughs in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
However, before this optimism can be realised, a number of challenges must first be overcome. Recognising this, the European Science Foundation (ESF) launched the first ever foresight exercise focused on the medical applications of nanotechnology in 2004 - its 'scientific forward look on nanomedicine'.
The study aimed to define the current state-of-the-art in nanomedicine, identify Europe's strengths and weaknesses, and provide recommendations on future research trends, organisational and research infrastructures, and methods of disseminating information to policy makers and the general public.
The exercise was carried out through a series of five thematic workshops, and a final consensus conference attended by more than 70 representatives from academia, industry, private foundations and government research agencies.
According to an ESF policy briefing summarising the findings of the full study, the aim of nanomedicine can be broadly defined as: '[T]he comprehensive monitoring, repair, and improvement of all human biological systems, working from the molecular level using engineered devices and nanostructures to achieve medical benefit.'
This definition covers the use of analytical tools to give a better understanding of the molecular basis of a disease, as well as the design of nano-sized (from one nanometre to 100s of nanometres) therapeutic and drug delivery systems that deliver more effective therapies.
Underpinning these fields, according to ESF, is basic research in the areas of materials science and device fabrication, as well as safety and toxicology issues relating to environmental impact and manufacturing processes. Such research requires a multidisciplinary approach, as well as careful consideration of clinical, ethical and societal issues, it argues.
From a scientific perspective, the study finds Europe in a position of strength in most of the five thematic areas covered. For example, in the area of nanomaterials and devices, it concludes that: 'Europe is particularly strong in the areas of physical and chemical assembly of nanostructures.' It therefore recommends that future efforts should focus on the orientation of existing technologies to specific nanomedicine challenges, and the enhancement of expertise in manufacturing, characterisation, reproducibility and quality control.
In the field of novel therapeutics and drug delivery systems, furthermore, the study found that European scientists have pioneered the design and development of many of the first generation nanomedicines, and have a particular strength in the areas of tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and stem cell research.
Turning to the organisation and funding of nanomedicine, however, the ESF analysis identifies potential weaknesses in the European system. While the rapidly growing investment in nanotechnology research at national and EU level is welcomed, it warns that the organisation and funding of nanomedicine in Europe is currently fragmented. 'This can inhibit attainment of the critical mass and the multidisciplinarity needed for effective research and development,' it adds.
To overcome this, the report proposes better coordination and networking of research activities, the establishment of European centres of excellence in nanomedicine, and the development of funding mechanisms with sufficient scale and scope and longer term budget cycles.
The exploitation of research results is also an area that the ESF identifies as a potential weakness for Europe. 'To win and maintain a leading position in nanomedicine it is essential that Europe improves technology transfer and shortens timelines from research to market,' it concludes.
Finally, the report emphasises the importance of effective modes of communication: between scientists themselves, from the research community to political bodies, and to the general public at large.
The chief executive of ESF, Bertil Andersson, concludes: 'Implementation of these recommendations should ensure continuing European leading-edge research and development in nanomedicine, resulting in reduced healthcare costs and the rapid realisation of medical benefits for all European citizens.'
Professor Andersson continues: 'ESF will commit itself to taking the initiative and facilitating the relevant bodies, including ESF member organisations and the European Commission, for actions based on these recommendations.'
For further information, please consult the following web address:
http:///ww w.esf.org/esf_pressarea_page.ph p?section=6&language=0&newsrelea se=83