Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is that nanotechnology in your trousers?

I have been tempted to open my lecture on nanotechnology with the subject line above, adapted reverently from the legendary non-quote of Mae West, as a way to grab the audience's attention, but I have lacked the testicular virility, to borrow from that legendary Shakespearean, the Thane of Ravenswood, known to most as disgraced and indicted former governor of Illinois, to complete the line. But I do raise the topic of trousers by way of showing that something as esoteric-sounding as nanotechnology has impacts at the mundane level - if you consider trousers mundane.

The reputation of the Super Savvy Cyber Professor has apparently spread as far and as wide as Del Webb's Sun City, located in far-flung (it's a stretch to call it picturesque) Huntley on Route 47. For I was invited recently to give a talk on the very subject of nanotechnology as part of their monthly series. While I might not exactly be following in Chad Mirkin's mighty footsteps on the lecture circuit, this talk did number my third on this subject, the other audiences being a group of fifth graders and the octogenarian garden club in Wheaton some months past.

Sun City turned out to be a little piece of Florida in Illinois, acres of little white villas set amongst rolling fairways. A sign at the entrance warns of motorized golf carts. I learned that Sun City is home to over nine thousand mature residents. All that appears to be locally available is a solitary Jewel across from the entrance. The clubhouse, wherein I was to present, was, on the other hand, lavish beyond expectation. The audience proved to be attentive and not short on penetrating and probing questions. Would that the youth were so intentional about being informed.

While the current market place for "nanotechnology" is largely low-tech, featuring stain-proofing fabrics (hence the trouser reference), tennis rackets, car waxes and numerous other products that have largely been long in existence and only recently renamed to embrace the nano boom, the real future, I suppose, is hoped to be in much more exotic and useful applications such as healthcare. I imagined that the more senior segments of society would be particularly interested in those. A website called Understandingnano.com lists some twelve companies developing nano products for various health-related applications. These include things like, gold nanoparticles for targeted delivery of drugs to tumors; nanoparticles that, when irradiated by X-rays, generate electrons which cause localized destruction of the tumor cells; disease identification using gold nanoparticles; nanoparticles for improving the performance of drug delivery; magnetically responsive nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery and other applications; quantum dots for medical imaging; diagnostic testing using gold nanoparticles to detect low levels of proteins indicating particular diseases. And that is just a partial list.

Nanotechnology is being hailed as opening up new possibilities for advanced identification of diseases, thus permitting earlier and presumably more successful treatment. Will these new capabilities further complicate the healthcare business? Are we not already prone to somewhat indiscriminate use of test procedures just because someone else tends to foot the bill? Medicine has long been an irresistible attraction to developers of new technology. I suppose it is the thought of huge markets, vast mark-ups and a largely captive audience that attracts them. A couple of decades ago, the laser business descended upon unsuspecting doctors offering improved (and expensive) alternatives to low-tech scalpels in any number of applications. It is probably fair to say that, overall with a few exceptions, the scalpels tended to have won out. Lasers did not deliver on the promises and ended up creating a population of medical practitioners rather skeptical about adopting new technology. I hope that gold nanospheres suffer a better fate. There is genuine hope because they do seem to offer unique approaches, rather than a fancier and more expensive way of making incisions.

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