BB&T Washington Editor

Nanotechnology may be surfacing as a big buzzword again after a seeming hiatus from the public consciousness. But the science behind it still hasn’t changed lives the way that early media reports about this tantalizing technology had promised. As one example, The New York Times has featured one or another aspect of nanotechnology as far back as 1991, when it reported on an effort at IBM (Armonk, New York) to manipulate individual silicon atoms in its work to develop smaller, more powerful microprocessors. The same article suggested the possibility of “tiny robots that could travel through the body.” Fifteen years later, those tiny robots are still only in the realm of scientific imagination rather than reality. Nanoparticles have made their way into sunscreens and make-up but not much into healthcare.

Jim Weinrebe, a senior vice president with Schwartz Communication (Waltham, Massachusetts), a PR firm with an extensive practice in medical device communication, told Biomedical Business & Technology that up to now, nanotechnology has been “overly hyped and didn’t deliver, so anything based on nanotech – even if it is legitimate or promising – is met with skepticism.” He added that any proactive communication effort would have to factor in the potential for “perpetuating the perception that it is over-hyped. This has implications for venture capital, IPO, valuation, speed to market, etc.”

But whatever the real barriers to nanotechnology – beyond the excessive hype and the lack of commercial reality – the fabrication of matter from individual atoms will most likely end up impacting med-tech, both negatively and positively, in profound ways.

The earliest ideas

The seed of the idea behind nanotechnology is ascribable to ancient Greek philosophers who postulated something like the atom, but the 20th Century is home to the first realistic attempts to examine the idea of manipulating matter on a nanoscale. Richard Feynman, PhD, one of the most prominent physicists of the past century, in a 1959 lecture before the American Physical Society (College Park, Maryland), argued that there is no physical law that forbidding humankind from nanoscale interventions. In his presentation, titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” he explicated his belief that the “principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom.” Interestingly, Feynman added that “[I]n the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction.”

The term “nanotechnology” then was coined by Eric Drexler, PhD, whose 1986 book “Engines of Creation” delivered a survey of the potential for nanoscale manufacturing. His book spurred interest in the subject, and the Clinton Administration established the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 1993, some say due in part to Drexler’s tome.

However, even the most brilliant physicist cannot always anticipate the stubbornness of Murphy’s Law. And despite two decades of hyperbole, nanotechnology is perhaps best known to the American public as the means by which a fictional race of beings sought to take over the universe in one of the now-defunct Star Trek spin-offs.

Funding efforts not lacking

The lack of nanotech progress has not been due to a lack of federal or state government interest. According to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, part of the Executive Office of the President, the Bush Administration has suggested an outlay of $1.28 billion for fiscal year 2007 for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

Under the administration’s plan, the amount of nanotech funding allocated to the Environmental Protection Agency for environmental studies is scheduled to rise from $5 million to $9 million, and the amount forwarded to the National Science Foundation would jump from $344 million to $373 million.

Those that would receive less NNI monies include the Department of Defense, which would see a drop from $436 million to $345 million, and Health and Human Services from $175 million to $173 million.

Under the proposed 2007 NNI budget, $20 million will not travel far from DC. In a March 20 press release, Commerce Secretary Carlos Guteirrez announced the launch of a state-of-the-art center for collaborative research in nanotechnology on the campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Gaithersburg, Maryland). Guteirrez remarked that the aim of the facility is to “help the private sector develop innovative products like more efficient batteries, lighter-weight and higher-performing materials for aircraft and autos and smaller computer chips to power digital devices.”

Not to be outdone, a number of states in the U.S. have pitched their hats into the nanotech ring. Universities in the states of California, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and others are all examining the nanotech world, financed in part by state taxpayers. Georgia’s Governor Sonny Perdue included an allocation of $38 million in bonds to fund a nanotech research center at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech; Atlanta).

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has also jumped in with the Nanoparticle Information Library, the purpose of which is “to help occupational health professionals, industrial users, worker groups, and researchers organize and share information on nanomaterials, including their health- and safety-associated properties.”

A number of nanoparticles can be used in medical devices and drug delivery, but most of the current attention is focused on nanotubes. However, the venerable buckyball is still in play, as are nanowires and nanoribbons. While most companies that market nanoparticles seem to be in the business of making nanotubes, one company has isolated a natural source.

Exploring ‘nanotubes’ – and more

In March, Biophan Technologies and NaturalNano (both West Henrietta, New York) reported that they had filed a “broad patent” for use of naturally occurring nanotubes derived from halloysite clay, a unique white clay that is often used to make porcelain. Halloysite, which is composed of equal parts clay and silica, is formed from rhyolite after it has been leached of feldspar. In a March press statement, the companies outlined their intent to develop products for drug delivery, use in bandages and “active elution” of drugs.

According to NaturalNano’s web site, the halloysite tubes in question are possessed of “high aspect ratios that are tens to hundreds of nanometers in diameter, with lengths typically ranging from about 500 nanometers to over 1.2 microns.” The firm expects these to be “used for storing, delivering and controlling the release of various chemicals and materials, making possible a wide range of commercial applications.”

A collaborative effort involving the University of Houston and Rice University (both Houston) has already established that inserting gadolinium into nanotubes improves the effectiveness of the contrast agent in MRI scans because of the tendency of the gadolinium to aggregate within the tubes in clusters of 10 atoms each. The insertion of the gadolinium into the nanotubes will also reduce toxic effects of injecting the substance straight into the patient’s bloodstream.

The March 16 edition of Science magazine included the announcement that researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have come up with two kinds of synthetic muscles. The type using carbon nanotubes employs methanol as a power source and the nanotubes can store unused methanol, giving the devices a functional battery. According to the institute’s web site, these “artificial muscles . . . are 100 times stronger than natural muscles, able to do 100 times greater work per cycle and produce, at reduced strengths, larger contractions than natural muscles,” possibly giving rise to fuel-powered artificial limbs and smart skins.

While the great majority of nano-based products are still in development, the FDA has cleared a small number items for the medical marketplace.

The first device cleared by FDA, in February 2005, was the NanOss, a bone-void filler marketed by Angstrom Medica (Woburn, Massachusetts) based on the firm’s proprietary nanocrystalline hydroxyapatite. Angstrom’s web site describes the product as “an innovative structural biomaterial that is highly osteoconductive and remodels over time into human bone with applications in the sports medicine, trauma, spine and general orthopedics markets.”

AcryMed (Beaverton, Oregon) announced in December that it had obtained FDA’s clearance for “the first use of SilvaGard” by I-Flow (Lake Forest, California) in its ON-Q SilverSoaker antimicrobial catheter. According to Acrymed, the product is able to “kill a very broad spectrum of medically relevant bacteria (gram+ and gram-) as well as fungi” and avoids the pitfalls of other such coatings, including problems with adhesion to and chemical interaction with device surfaces.

Sizing the market

Despite the obvious difficulty in estimating the market-specific and overall economic impacts of nanotechnology, some organizations have attempted the feat. BCC Research (Norwalk, Connecticut) stated in a February 2004 press release that “nanotechnology . . . is not an ‘industry’ or a ‘market’ in the same sense” as traditionally understood industries. But in putting a metric on the economic impact of nanotechnology, BCC’s analysis concluded that “the total global demand for nanoscale materials, tools and devices was estimated at $7.6 billion in 2003” and may hit $28.7 billion in 2008.

The National Science Foundation (Arlington, Virginia) came up with a different set of numbers in 2001, when it projected that nanotechnology will “total worldwide market size of over $1 trillion annually in 10 to 15 years.” Included in that report, “Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology,” was the assertion that “about half of all [pharmaceutical] production will be dependent on nanotechnology, affecting over $180 billion per year in 10 to 15 years.