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Technology | The nanotech future is just beginning

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

ST. LOUIS- In a dim meeting room at the America's Center in St. Louis, two rows of armless stick figures splash across a projection screen. The figures, some upright and others upside down, look like two-tentacled squids lined up to tickle each other's feet. The stick figures represent lipids, the molecules that make up fat. In this picture, they line up to form a lipid bilayer, the material that makes up the membrane, or skin, of living cells. What the scientists at this symposium are learning about lipid bilayers could change the world.

Six scientists at the February convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)-the largest general science conference in the world-presented their individual versions of the stick-squid illustration and their own research in nano-biotechnology. By coating a nano-sized machine-say, a silicon chip smaller than a human cell-with a lipid bilayer, the scientists could trick a human cell into talking to the machine, maybe even into taking orders from it.

The names of these scientists-Jay Groves, Barbara Baird, and Atul Parikh, to name three-might one day make it into the history books. But for now, they are relative unknowns, even in the scientific community. At last month's AAAS event, planners scheduled their symposium four hours before the meeting's opening ceremonies. They may have been sharing groundbreaking science, but most of their conference colleagues were still arriving at the St. Louis airport.

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Science-fiction writers and politicians have had more success drawing attention to nanotechnology. Michael Crichton's 2002 bestseller Prey featured a swarm of nano-robots gone berserk, controlling the minds and bodies of people for its own devious purposes. President George Bush included nanotechnology in a list of the "most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences" in his State of the Union address last month, and he proposed doubling its funding. Already federal funding for nanotechnology research has more than doubled to $1.05 billion in the last five years.

But what is nanotechnology and what promise does it hold?

Anyone in the market for an iPod knows that "nano-" has become a powerful marketing tool. In his newly released book, Nano-Hype, professor David Berube highlights companies such as NanoPierce Technologies, which changed its name to include "nano" even though it has nothing to do with nanotechnology.

The strategy works, Mr. Berube argues, because of the public's misunderstanding of real nanotechnology. The public thinks of it as something new and novel, when it is really the same old science-on a scale 1/800th the size of a human hair.

When a chemistry teacher draws concentric circles on the chalkboard to explain atoms, or a biology teacher holds up a model of a double helix to represent DNA, that's nanoscience. Nanotechnology is simply the most recent attempt to manipulate the basic building blocks of matter. So far, it has succeeded best in the clothing industry with the manufacture of stain-repellent material. Consumers can buy "nanopants," as the industry calls them, from Eddie Bauer, Gap, and Brooks Brothers.

Plotting the future of nanotechnology is more difficult. The 2003 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act established the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to coordinate the government's different nanotechnology programs. Sections of the act resemble the legislation that established NASA, with emphasis on "ensuring United States global leadership" and "ensuring that advances . . . bring about improvements in quality of life for all Americans." But as the government sends wagons of money to the nano-frontier, neither the scientists nor the politicians who support them know the extent to which nanotechnology will change life as we know it. Uncertainty in the laboratory, however, hasn't stopped a host of those on the outside from campaigning for their respective visions of a nano-future.

Human-techno interaction already is common in medical treatments and devices such as dialysis, prosthetic limbs, breast implants, and pacemakers, as scientists study and implement nanotechnology inside the human body to cure disease and extend life spans. Nano-biotechnology aims to make these interactions between humans and machines less invasive and cumbersome than in today's technology.

At Washington University's Siteman Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, researchers are developing nanoparticles that deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to tumors. The treatment could destroy tumors without exposing the rest of the body to the painful side effects of chemotherapy. The center was established in late 2005 and will begin clinical trials at the end of this year.

But the cancer center's fast turnaround does not reflect painstaking preliminary research, scientist Greg Lanza says. Mr. Lanza and the project's principal investigator, Samuel Wickline, spent more than 10 years figuring out which nanoparticles to use, what drugs they should carry, what kind of chemicals and proteins to coat them with, and how to track them in the body using MRI. And they aren't finished yet. The therapy they will test at the end of the year targets the vessels that send blood to a tumor. The treatment would not kill the cancer, but it could make the tumor more susceptible to chemotherapy and radiation by weakening its blood supply.

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