A publication of the Asian Development Bank No. 2     December 2008
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“Nanotechnologies are likely to bring huge socioeconomic disruptions”
—ETC Group, United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Services
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New Publications

Pros and Cons of Nanotechnology

ETC Group. 2008. Downsizing Development: An Introduction to Nano-Scale Technologies and the Implication to the Global South. United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Services. March. 102 pages.

Downsizing could address some of the world’s biggest challenges

Coming at a time when our world is faced with a multitude of crises— from climate change to poverty, hunger, and disease—the appearance of Downsizing Development is timely, indeed. As the book’s preface reminds us, “history is replete with technological breakthroughs which the scientist-historians aptly called ‘disruptive technologies,’ causing dramatic changes in our society.”

From the steam engine to electricity, the transistor, and the integrated circuit, we’ve seen how no less than radical (and disruptive) technologies are needed to move things forward.

Microscale (10-6 meters) technologies proved a boon to the microelectronics and telecommunications industries. They were also used in many biological applications ranging from drug delivery to DNA sequencing.

Then came nanoscale (10-9 meters) technologies, the manipulation of matter on the scale of atoms and molecules. Will nanotechnologies, which are 1,000 times smaller than microscale technologies, be part of the solution to our global problems?

The idea is that, with only a reduction in size (below about 100 nanometers, roughly), and no change in substance, materials can exhibit new properties related to electrical conductivity, elasticity, strength, color, and chemical reactivity—characteristics that the same substances do not exhibit at the microscale or macroscale.

Using nanoscale technologies to create nanoparticles and nanomaterials, scientists are dramatically transforming existing materials and designing new ones. Acting as a molecular transistor, carbon nanotubes can replace silicon, yielding ultra- fast computers that perform “orders of magnitude” beyond silicon. Nanodevices for molecular drug delivery can chemically target and penetrate a tumor cell when injected in the bloodstream. Nanoparticle films with embedded sensors can detect food pathogens and alert the consumer when food is contaminated or has begun to spoil. A nanosensor can measure blood glucose in diabetic patients and a “quantum dot” technique can tag cancer cells for monitoring and possible cure.

But for all these benefits, can nanotechnology also do society harm, directly or otherwise? Medical nanotechnology seems to promise wonder drugs and smart ways of producing them in the laboratory. Artemisinin, for example, is a natural product used in Chinese medicine that is regarded highly by the World Health Organization as an anti-malarial drug, and problems with its supply seem to have been resolved with a breakthrough in its synthesis, using microbes.

But the book asks: “Will the focus on synthetic biology to tackle malaria divert attention and resources from less glamorous approaches that are nonetheless sustainable and decentralized? Will alternative options for addressing malaria be cast aside in single-minded pursuit of synbio’s silver bullet?”

Vivagel is a microbicide, also developed through nanotechnology, that could reduce the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. It is being tested around the world and, while the outlook is promising, there are fears that it will be too expensive for the people who will need it most, and that political pressure for its speedy approval might compromise public safety.

But the largest impact of nanotechnology could be in its potential replacement of industrial raw materials that mostly come from developing countries. The trade in commodities such as rubber or copper stands to be significantly affected if developed countries harness their nanotechnology capabilities and produce nanomaterials as substitutes for their industrial raw material needs.

The question of access to these technologies is also related to the issue of intellectual property ownership. As in the wild frontier days of biotechnology, the search for nanotechnology patents could “lead to sweeping monopoly control over both animate and inanimate matter.”

New technologies might bring overwhelmingly positive impacts, but it is important and prudent to remember the unique risks to human health and the environment whenever and wherever engineered nanoparticles are used.

“Hundreds of products containing unregulated and unlabeled nanoscale particles are commercially available. And yet no national government has developed a regulatory regime that addresses the nanoscale or the societal impacts of the invisibly small,” notes the book. “We should not allow the private sector to decide on who will own the technologies and regulate their use.”

There have been calls to form an independent body to monitor and assess the introduction of new technologies. Civil society’s proposal for an International Convention on the Evaluation of New Technologies seems a timely and necessary idea in this respect.

Near the end, the book reminds us: “The immediate and most pressing issue is that nanotechnologies are likely to bring huge socioeconomic disruptions for which society is not prepared.” Be warned.

Edward Deveza is Technology Licensing Officer of the University of the Philippines System