Tag Archives: Nano Revolution

Nature of Things’ series: The Nano Revolution (Episode 3); Will Nano Save the Planet?

I’m never thrilled with titles of this ilk, Will Nano Save the Planet? Refreshingly, this episode featured some work being done by Canadian scientists (two of them) although the average Canadian could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the only nanotechnology research taking place in Canada.

It’s a little puzzling that they chose this final episode for a description of the term nanoscale. David Suzuki, the host, mentioned the ridges of skin on your fingers and noted that a nanoparticle is 80,000 times smaller than the distance between the ridges. (If you want a really good description of scale, I recommend listening to Professor Ravi Silva’s audio interview with Alok Jha on the (UK) Guardian’s Oct. 14, 2011 Science Weekly podcast.)

In general, I found the descriptions of the science in this episode were not of the same standard as the previous two, which were very good.

The vignettes, as always, were problematic largely since they were internal monologues of some character who’s grappling with ethical issues and other social impacts of these technologies. Interestingly, men starred in the vignettes where the ‘big’ issues are covered: ethics of health care; longer life; access to energy sources; pollution from nanotechnology-enabled products; etc. The woman who starred in the vignettes from episode one (as I noted in my review) was concerned with cleanliness, tidiness, shopping, and privacy. I guess things don’t change that much in our future, especially in 2050 where nanotechnology protestors are putting up banners, spraypainting, and leafletting (almost as if it were 1968) to express their opposition (in episode three).

There was some interesting work being covered. They profiled Professor Ted Sargent, based at the University of Toronto, who’s doing some exciting work with solar cells (he wants to make them flexible and, even, paintable). His latest breakthrough is mentioned in my Sept. 20, 2011 posting.

Professor Vicki Colvin, Rice University in Texas, is working to purify water. The project is in Mexico and highlights the difficulties when water supplies are contaminated, in this case, with arsenic. (Here in the Pacific Northwest we tend to forget that access to fresh clean water is not easy in many parts of the world.) Colvin and her colleagues are working on a simple solution that can be implemented with some sand, gravel, a tube, and active nanoparticles. (Her work with the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative; a UK/US collaboration was mentioned in my Jan. 28, 2011 posting.)

The third project was focussed on soil remediation and a team from the University of Western Ontario headed by Professor Dennis O’Carroll. I have not come across O’Carroll’s work previously so this was a find for me. As you may or may not know, there are many sites with contaminated soil throughout North America and elsewhere. If successful, O’Carroll’s technique promises to remediate (rehabiltate) the soil without having to move massive amounts of soil and use big  equipment.

This episode featured more discussion about the risks and uncertainties associated with nanotechnology and its use. Unfortunately, I did not recognize the names and (one of my major pet peeves with this series) they either didn’t write out the names on screen or they flashed them briefly which meant that unless I recognized the names it was difficult to find out more about the experts.

I did recognize the mesocosm project at Duke University, which was featured here in my August 15, 2011 posting. The researchers are trying to understand what impact silver nanoparticles have on life. They spray silver nanoparticles in various mesocosms (they look like raised plant beds) and then track what happens to the plant, the soil, and the water supply as the silver nanoparticles cycle through.

There’s work in the UK examining air and the nanoparticles released through the use of internal combustion engines (cars/trucks) as well as our newly engineered nanoparticles. I’m glad to see this material in the episode, perhaps it will finally motivate some public discussion in Canada.

Commercializing nano: US, Spain, and RUSNANO

Late September 2011 saw the Nanomanufacturing Summit 2011 and 10th Annual NanoBusiness conference take place in Boston, Massachusetts (my Sept. 21, 2011 posting). Dr. Scott Rickert (President and CEO of Nanofilm) writing for Industry Week noted this about the events in his Oct. 14, 2011 posting,

I witnessed an American revolution catch fire in Boston, and I feel like a latter-day Paul Revere. “The nanotech economy is coming, the nanotech economy is coming!” and that’s good news for the U.S. — and you — because we’re at the epicenter.

Let’s start with commercialization. Ten years ago, when I walked into the inaugural version of this conference, I was one of the few with money-making nanotechnology products on the market. This time? The sessions were packed with executives from multi-million dollar businesses, and the chatter was about P&L as much as R&D. Nano-companies are defying Wall Street woes and going public. And even academics were talking about business plans, not prototypes.

Dozens of companies from Europe, Asia and the Middle East were at the conference. Their goal was tapping into the American know-how for making science into business.

Seems a little euphoric, doesn’t he? It’s understandable for anyone who’s worked long and hard at an activity that’s considered obscure by great swathes of the population and finally begins to see substantive response. (Sidebar: Note the revolutionary references for a conference taking place in what’s considered the birthplace of the American Revolution.)

Speakers at MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Nanotechnology) EmTech event held in Spain on Oct. 26-27, 2011 were are a bit more measured, excerpted from the Oct. 27, 2011 posting featuring highlights from the conference by Cal Pierce for Opinno,

Javier García Martínez, founder of Rive Technology and Tim Harper, founder of Cientifica.com presented their view of how nanotechnology will transform our world.

Harper took the stage first.

“We have spent $67 billion on nanotechnology research this decade, so you can imagine this must be an important field,” he said.

Harper believes that nanotechnology is the most important technology that humans have developed in the past 5,000 years. However, he spoke about the difficulties in developing nanotechnology machinery in that we cannot simply shrink factories down to nano-scales. Rather, Harper said we need to look to cells in nature as they have been using nanotechnology for billions of years.

….

Harper spoke about the dire need to use nanotechnology to develop processes that replace scarce resources. However, the current economic climate is hindering these critical innovations.

Javier Garcia then spoke.

“Graphene, diamond and other carbon structures are the future of 21st-century nanotechnology,” he said.

Garcia says that the next challenge is commercialization. There are thousands of scientific articles about nanotechnology published every year which are followed by many patents, he explained. However, he reflected on Cook’s ideas about funding.

“There is still not a nanotechnology industry like there is for biotechnology,” he said.

Finally, Garcia said successful nanotechnology companies need to build strong partnerships, have strong intellectual property rights and create a healthy balance between creativity and focus. Government will also play a role with simplified bureaucracy and tax credits.

Hang on, it gets a little more confusing when you add in the news from Russia (from Dexter Johnson’s Oct. 26, 2011 posting titled, Russia Claims Revenues of One-Third-of–a-Billion Dollars in Nanotech This Year on his Nanoclast blog on the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineering [IEEE] website),

One of the first bits of interesting news to come out of the meeting is that: “In 2011, Rusnano has earned about 10 billion rubles ($312 million) on manufacturing products using nanotechnology — nearly half of the state corporation’s total turnover.”

We should expect these estimates to be fairly conservative, however, ever since Anatoly Chubais, RusNano’s chief, got fed up with bogus market numbers he was seeing and decided that RusNano was going to track its own development.

I have to say though, no matter how you look at it, over $300 million in revenues is pretty impressive for a project that has really only existed for three years.

Then RUSNANO announced its investments in Selecta Biosciences and BIND Biosiences, from the Oct. 27, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

BIND Biosciences and Selecta Biosciences, two leading nanomedicine companies, announced today that they have entered into investment agreements with RUSNANO, a $10-billion Russian Federation fund that supports high-tech and nanotechnology advances.

RUSNANO is co-investing $25 million in BIND and $25 million in Selecta, for a total RUSNANO investment of $50 million within the total financing rounds of $94.5 million in the two companies combined. …

The proprietary technology platforms of BIND and Selecta originated in laboratories at Harvard Medical School directed by Professor Omid Farokhzad, MD, and in laboratories at MIT directed by Professor Robert Langer, ScD, a renowned scientist who is a recipient of the US National Medal of Science, the highest US honor for scientists, and is an inventor of approximately 850 patents issued or pending worldwide. Drs. Langer and Farokhzad are founders of both companies. [Farokhzad was featured in a recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation {CBC}, Nature of Things, television episode about nanomedicine, titled More than human.] Professor Ulrich von Andrian, MD, PhD, head of the immunopathology laboratory at Harvard Medical School, is a founder of Selecta.

Selecta pioneers new approaches for synthetically engineered vaccines and immunotherapies. Selecta’s lead drug candidate, SEL-068, is entering human clinical studies as a vaccine for smoking cessation and relapse prevention. Other drug development programs include universal human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, universal influenza vaccine, malaria vaccine, and type 1 diabetes therapeutic vaccine.

BIND develops targeted therapeutics, called Accurins™, that selectively accumulate at the site of disease to dramatically enhance effectiveness for treating cancer and other diseases. BIND’s lead candidate, BIND-014, is in human clinical trials as a targeted therapy for cancer treatment. BIND’s development pipeline also includes a range of cancer treatments and drugs for anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular conditions.

Here’s an excerpt from Dexter Johnson’s Oct. 28, 2011 posting where he muses on this development,

It seems the last decade of the US—along with parts of Europe and Asia—pouring money into nanotechnology research, which led to a few fledgling nanotechnology-based businesses, is finally paying off…for Russia.

In the case of these two companies, I really don’t know to what extent their initial technology was funded or supported by the US government and I wouldn’t begrudge them a bit if it was significant. Businesses need capital just to get to production and then later to expand. It hardly matters where it comes from as long as they can survive another day.

Dexter goes on to note that RUSNANO is not the only organization investing major money to bring nanotechnology-enabled products to the next stage of commercialization; this is happening internationally.

Meanwhile, Justin Varilek posts this (Nanotech Enthusiasm Peaks) for the Moscow Times on Oct. 28, 2011,

In nanotechnology, size matters. But federal funding for the high-tech field has tapered off in Russia, flattening out at $1.88 billion per year through 2015 and losing ground in the race against the United States and Germany.

If this were a horse race, nanotechnology-enabled products are in the final stretches toward the finish line (commercialization) and it’s still anyone’s horse race.

Note: I didn’t want to interrupt the flow earlier to include this link to the EmTech conference in Spain. And, I did post a review (Oct. 26, 2011) of More than Human, which did not mention Farokhzad by name, the second episode in a special three-part series being broadcast as part of the Nature of Things series on CBC.

Nature of Things’ The Nano Revolution part 2: More than Human

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.