Brussels, 22 Jan 2004
Nanotechnology could play a major role in medical diagnostics by 2020, finding the causes of illness quicker, more accurately and earlier than ever before, a Swiss study predicts.
A Swiss technology survey forecasts that nanotechnology will lead to more efficient medical diagnosis within the next 15 years. Authors of the study at the Centre for Technology Assessment (TA-Swiss) say their objective is to provide independent information on the potential benefits and risks, as well as the repercussions, of new technologies.
Much has been made of the potential benefits to science and, in particular, medicine of this strange branch of research that takes place on the nano scale. But, until now, there has been little hard evidence that the medical profession and society, in general, will pick up and readily accept this revolutionary science.
TA-Swiss asked over 70 experts working in various disciplines in Europe and beyond to give their views on where nanotechnology research stands at present, and how they see it evolving in the next two decades. The general conclusions reached were that science on the extremely small scale will lead to more efficient medical diagnosis, but the use of nanotechnology to treat illnesses could be more than a decade away and limited to specific diseases, such as cancer and viruses.
Marcel Indermühle of TA-Swiss says the results of their study show that experts have high hopes for the use of nanotechnology in medical diagnostics. "Diagnosis will be quicker, earlier, and much more accurate; that is what the experts believe," he is quoted as saying.
Counter the fear factor
The study, which was published December last year, also touches on the fear aspect of such new and radical technologies, emphasising the importance of holding public debate on the role of nanotechnology in society. "We don't want to repeat the mistake made with biotechnology and genomics," Indermühle stressed. "People's fears need to be taken into account when it comes to deciding how nanotechnology will develop."
The authors recommend independent and interdisciplinary review of progress made in this emerging technology, including close analysis of the possible consequences of its use – and potential abuse – as well as the ethical and moral issues arising from this. They also support permanent dialogue on these issues between researchers, industry, policy-makers and the public.
The first nanofabrication experiments took place in 1990, but the actual term was coined in 1986 by K. Eric Drexler in his book 'Engines of Creation', where he predicted that nanotechnology could give rise to exponential growth in productivity and personal wealth.
The European Union has taken the view that nanotechnology and nanosciences hold great promise to improve the fabric of European society. Through its Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for research, the Commission has set aside €1.3 billion for research into this priority area. The EU acknowledges the importance of ethical issues in selecting appropriate candidates to receive EU funding in this field – and all other research fields.
On a related note, the Union concluded last week an international co-operation agreement with its Swiss counterparts on science and technology, which will enable closer scientific collaboration between the two parties in the FP6-related research activities.