More than Human (the episode can be seen here), part of 2 of a special Nature of Things series, The Nano Revolution, was aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Oct. 20, 2011; one might be forgiven for thinking this episode concerned robots but that wasn’t the case. The focus was on nanomedicine, specifically cancer and aging, along with a few scenarios hinting at social impacts of the ‘new’ medicine.
This episode, like the last one (Welcome to Nano City), presents the science in an understandable fashion without overexplaining basic concepts. A skill I much appreciate since watching a video of an engineer explain at length that the eye has a cornea and a retina to an audience of adults who were attending a talk about retinal implants.
More coherent than the first one, (Welcome to Nano City reviewed in my Oct. 17, 2011 posting), which featured three topics (one was totally unrelated to any city) both episodes, convey excitement about the possibilities being suggested by nanotechnology.
As for this episode, More than human, it certainly told a compelling story of a future where there will be no cancer (or it will be easily treated if it does occur) and we won’t age as we can make perfect tissues to replace whatever has been broken. There were also hints of a few social issues as illustrated by future oriented vignettes interspersed through the programme.
I want to c0mmend the script writer for pulling together a story using disparate materials and videos (which I’m guessing are being repurposed, i.e., created for broadcast elsewhere and reused here). Given the broad range of nanomedicine research worldwide, this was a very difficult job.
Featured at some length was Dr. Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University. Here’s a description from Mirkin’s profile page on the Mirkin Group webspace,
Professor Mirkin is a chemist and a world renowned nanoscience expert, who is known for his development of nanoparticle-based biodetection schemes, the invention of Dip-Pen Nanolithography, and contributions to supramolecular chemistry, nanoelectronics, and nanooptics. [emphasis mine] He is the author of over 430 manuscripts and over 370 patents and applications, and the founder of three companies, Nanosphere, NanoInk, and Aurasense which are commercializing nanotechnology applications in the life science and semiconductor industries. Currently, he is listed as the most cited (based on total citations) chemist in the world with the second highest impact factor and the top most cited nanomedicine researcher in the world. At present, he is a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology.
Mirkin talked extensively about his work on biomarker sensing and its applications for diagnostic procedures that cut laboratory testing down from weeks to hours. This new equipment arising from Mirkin’s work is installed in some US hospital laboratories.
Dr. Silvano Dragonieri of Leiden University in The Netherlands discussed his e-nose technology which offers another approach to diagnostics. Here’s a description of Dragonieri’s (and another team’s) work in this area from an April 27, 2009 news item on physorg.com,
In 2006 researchers established that dogs could detect cancer by sniffing the exhaled breath of cancer patients. Now, using nanoscale arrays of detectors, two groups of investigators have shown that a compact mechanical device also can sniff out lung cancer in humans.
Hossam Haick, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, used a network of 10 sets of chemically modified carbon nanotubes to create a multicomponent sensor capable of discriminating between a healthy breath and one characteristic of lung cancer patients. This work appears in the journal Nano News. Meanwhile, Silvano Dragonieri, M.D., University of Bari, Italy, and his colleagues used a commercial nanoarray-based electronic “nose” to discriminate between the breath of patients with non-small cell lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). These results appear in the journal Lung Cancer. [emphasis mine]
Nanomedicine is fascinating, which is why it’s easy to lose perspective. Thankfully there was Dr. Philip Kantoff (also very enthused and a major figure in this area) to provide the voice of reason. Here’s more are about Kantoff from the profile page on the WEBMD website,
Dr. Kantoff has published more than 100 research articles on a variety of topics, including the molecular basis of genitourinary cancers and improved treatments for patients afflicted with prostate cancer, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and testicular cancer. His laboratory research involves understanding the genetics of prostate cancer. His clinical research involves clinical trials of novel therapeutic treatments for the genitourinary cancers. He teaches at Harvard Medical School, and lectures internationally to both medical and lay audiences. Dr. Kantoff has written nearly 100 reviews and monographs on cancer and has edited numerous books, including Prostate Cancer, A Multi-Disciplinary Guide published by Blackwell, and Prostate Cancer: Principles and Practice, a definitive text on prostate cancer, published in December 2001 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. He has also written a popular book, Prostate Cancer, a Family Consultation, published by Houghton Mifflin.
As Kantoff counsels against over-hyping he notes that much of the work in the area of nanomedicine is in the laboratory; there are still animal trials and human clinical trials to be convened for further testing.
Building on Kantoff’s observations: let’s consider the difference between research and clinical practice. Even after the human clinical trials have taken place, there’s still uncertainty about how this new procedure or medication, no matter how personalized, will affect an individual. Would aspirin be available over-the-counter today if we’d known all of the side effects which many people suffer from? No, not a chance. How long did it take to find out that aspirin was a problem? Several years.
The idea that this new ‘personalized’ medicine that Mirkin refers to will provide a perfect solution to any disease is based on the belief that we understand disease processes. We do not. Yes, we’ve catalogued any number of genomes, etc. but at least one question remains. Why do some people who have one or more biomarker for a disease never experience it while others with fewer biomarkers do?
While that question wasn’t raised in the episode I was impressed with the fact that they did mention patent issues (innovation and, in this care, care can be stifled by patents and this seems to be increasingly the case); some larger philosophical issues, just how long do you want to live?, and who gets to enjoy these new benefits (if such they be)?
I do have a few quibbles, there was no Canadian content other than David Suzuki reading a script as narration for the episode (this was true of the first episode too). The title, More than human, suggests not just robots but human enhancement too and that topic was barely discussed.
In future, I’d like to suggest a little more humility in programmes about nanotechnology. I found the constant references to ‘controlling’ atoms, matter, disease, etc. to be disconcerting. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t control an atom, we try to understand it and based on that understanding find better ways to exist in this universe.