The research councils' funding programme for nanoscience has moved to full throttle.
"Nanoscience: Through Engineering to Application" is a £50 million cross-council programme encompassing the work of all councils in the area.
A major plank of the programme is a series of nanotechnology "grand challenge" invitations to bid for research grants to develop projects that make a "unique and significant contribution" to society or the economy. They are run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
The second "grand challenge" call was announced by the EPSRC last week. Some £15 million is on offer for proposals that are designed to deliver on some of the promises of nanotechnology in healthcare.
Proposals are invited in two distinct areas that are currently buzzing worldwide: nanotechnologies for the targeted delivery of therapeutic agents and nanotechnologies for healthcare diagnostics.
The first looks at using nanotechnology to deliver drugs. Anticancer drugs, for example, have undesirable side-effects that could be avoided were they delivered to where they are needed using nanoparticles. The second looks at developing detection devices for diseases in the very early stages.
"The areas offer tremendous potential scientifically, industrially and for the public. For the first time we can see what is going on at the nano level and control it ... which opens up these new fields," said John Wand, head of nano and next-generation healthcare at the EPSRC.
Richard Jones, a professor at the University of Sheffield who advises the EPSRC on its nanotechnology strategy, said: "There are lots of people who have been saying that they have these cool nanotechnologies for detecting and delivering molecules. But we need to take this further, connect them to clinical needs and get them out to produce something that is going to do some good." Unusually, and possibly a first for any country, the areas identified in the calls for proposals were developed by consulting not only scientists and potential users but members of the public, through a series of workshops.
Dr Wand said: "Consulting the public has been very much part of deciding where we go. We consulted on options and this is what came out." He said the EPSRC was keen to ensure that developments in nanotechnology have public support to avoid a situation similar to that which occurred with GM crops.
The EPSRC expects to support about eight to ten projects and is seeking outline proposals up until 5 August. Funding will be for three years, with projects to start in May 2009 at the latest. Diseases associated with ageing, emerging infectious diseases, degenerative disorders and psychiatric disorders are highlighted as potential areas where the technology could be applied.
Yet the £15 million being made available is for stage one only, the council is keen to stress. As is the case in all its grand challenges, the EPSRC intends a second stage. It is earmarking about another £15 million for two to four projects that, at the end of the first stage, show the greatest promise of producing a measurable impact.
The expectation is that by the end of the second stage, which will also last three years, the technology will have reached a point where others are happy to fund its entry into the clinic. "Stage one is the basic research - whether you can prove this idea works in principle. By the end of second-stage funding you might be getting into the area of working up to preclinical trials," Dr Wand explained.
Researchers intending to apply need to form consortia that include end users such as clinicians. "They can bring (to the consortia) what the issues and the needs of clinical practice are," Dr Wand said, adding that industry involvement such as pharmaceutical companies - at least in a watching-brief capacity at stage one - would be of benefit too.
Researchers are also specifically asked to think about how they might work with the public to address ethical and social issues that could arise from their research.
"We are encouraging applicants to think about how the public will perceive what they want to do," Dr Wand said.
The grand challenge follows another £6.5 million challenge announced last year focusing on nanotechnology in energy, and specifically how the technology could help harvest solar energy. A third and final grand challenge expected to be worth £5 million is currently in development. "We don't yet know what the focus will be, but views from the academic community are welcomed," Dr Wand said.
Altogether the EPSRC's commitment to the first stage of the nanotechnology grand challenges totals £26.5 million, £16 million of which comes from the current budget (2008-09 to 2010-11).