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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
“None said ‘there are risks, so let's stop it'

Genuine fear of genetically modified (GM) crops arising from relatively less studied science combined with the fear of the unknown and lack of transparency of the companies dealing with GM crops made most governments and their citizens in Europe and other countries oppose the technology.

Fearing that nanotechnology, another promising technology, may face the same fate, the U.K. Royal Society had published a detailed report on nanotechnology in 2004.

The report, made freely accessible to the common man, was published well before society had formed an opinion. It had listed out both the risks and benefits of the technology and the areas that still needed more investigation.

The Dutch Government had also initiated a similar exercise and for the same reasons. Wiebe E. Bijker, Professor, Faculty of Arts and Culture, Universiteit Maastricht, The Netherlands, who had chaired the committee formed by the Health Council of Netherlands was in Chennai recently. Professor Bijker spoke to R. Prasad about the challenges and outcome of the exercise. Excerpts:

When did the Dutch Government initiate the process of publishing a report on nanotechnology? Was the exercise influenced by the Royal Society's move?

The exercise had started before the Royal Society's report was published. Actually, two institutions in The Netherlands with specific roles played a part — the Rathenau Institute and the Health Council of Netherlands.

The Rathenau Institute had started the process earlier and came out with the report in 2004. It had a narrow mission of looking at the positive and negative aspects of the technology without much scientific analysis as the process was undertaken before much research was done.

What prompted the Rathenau Institute to work on such a report?

They recognised the potential of nanotechnology well before it became a part of political agenda. It worked on the report well before 99 per cent of our society had heard about nanotechnology. Work was happening only in the laboratories and they brought it out of the agenda for public debate.

How did the government respond to the report?

The government recognised the huge economic potential of nanotechnology, and was very afraid that it would face the same fate as GM technology. The Royal Society report was at the back of its mind. So when the Rathenau report came, the government asked the Health Council to map the benefits and risks of the technology.

What was the composition of the Health Council committee, and when did you start working on the report?

The President of the Health Council decided not to have a committee exclusively of nanotechnologists, but decided to have others like me, an engineer, and others to be a part of the committee. [Dr. Bijker had chaired the committee]. It was a six-member committee, with five professionals involved in nanotechnology and a professional secretary with a PhD in toxicology.

We worked for two years from 2004 to 2006, and submitted the report in 2006.

How did you approach the problem?

We took very great care to balance the report. The crucial thing we did was we brought in the precautionary principle, and we gave an interpretation of the precautionary principle. We applied it to nanotechnology and told the government the benefits and risks, and that the scientists don't have answers for all the risks.

What was the main finding of the committee?

We found there was no complete understanding of the processes involved, and the toxicity of nanomaterials. And since there is no complete understanding, we cannot map all the risks.

So what the society/government is faced with is that there are such huge benefits but there are some risks. So do we go in for a moratorium or stop all nanotechnology development as there are some risks. Or do we invest all our money in toxicology and only continue after we fully understand the toxicology implications? Or do we trust the scientists to fix the problems when they arise?

What was your recommendation?

Risks are uncertain, and by definition we cannot hand over the responsibility to the scientists as they don't know all the facts. Toxicology is an example of 2nd class of risk and we need to involve the stakeholders — industry, doctors, patient organisations. It is important that the citizens understand that there is uncertainty in nanotechnology, for instance, toxicology.

We decided to put a lot of investment in nanotech toxicology. We also said you should broaden the scope to involve the citizens to discuss the broader issues of nanotechnology.

Is toxicology the only area of concern now?

Everybody agrees on the direction the society has to move. We don't want toxic materials and everybody agrees on that.

There is a 3rd category that the society does not want to promote — human enhancement. For example, a chip put in your brain or retina. Many people believe that it is the fundamental identity of human beings; we should never tinker with it.

Is ‘human enhancement' a perception problem?

That's not true. In the case of toxic materials, everybody agrees we don't want it. But in the case of human enhancement, not everybody agrees. Some want it and some are strongly opposed to it. There we say we should involve the general public in the debate. [Human enhancement] involves the basic values of the society.

Did the government accept your recommendations and how did they act on it?

The government accepted our advice. They came out with a policy paper signed by eight ministers. This vision translated the Health Council advice into a governmental policy vision.

Then it took yet another two years until the end of 2008 to decide on the societal dialogue. The parliamentary agreement came in fall of 2008. My guess is that that long period was partly caused by the need to set aside enough funds (4,000,000 euros).

How did the government go about involving the public in the societal dialogue?

There was an open call for projects. There were roughly 40 projects in all. There were different kinds of projects — TV production, books, teaching materials for schools, theatre played in hospitals and market place, travelling exhibitions, science café, games — that gave information about the technology.

The important point is, the public had no clue about the technology. So do we wait till the public knows something? But then it becomes too late. So where do we start? So these projects were meant to educate and create awareness about the technology before the public dialogue.

Did the projects end up creating awareness about the technology?

Yes. For instance, nearly 99 per cent of the students and 80 per cent of the parents had never heard about nanotechnology before. Students did experiments and reading the Net and produced a kind of thesis/presentation — both oral and written.

At a conference, I was flabbergasted by the level of knowledge they [students] had gained in six months' time. Awareness level was amazing. Each of the students would be able to give a lecture on nanotechnology.

When did the public debate start, and what was the outcome of the debate?

The dialogue was held between January and November 2010.

The awareness level increased. We measured it both at the beginning and at the end, and there is a very clear increase in awareness. The public understood the benefits and risks, and that there is uncertainty. None of the groups said: “there are risks, so let's stop the technology.”

Scientists know they don't have the answers for all the questions. And the citizens appreciate that scientists don't know everything.

How did the scientists end up feeling at the end?

In one case, the organiser [of the debate] was the industry. They were disappointed in the end. They thought how did these kids know so much and say we should invest in this technology, but always stress on the risks involved.

Most of the scientists reckon that in the end, the public would take an informed choice. Maybe a choice which is not the one they want them to take, but definitely not a totally negative one or a totally silly acceptance of the technology.

What did you learn from the public debate?

A preliminary report says that they [public] want the government to go ahead with nanotechnology, but as long as the government tells them about the risks. The public is more afraid of a government not telling the truth about the risks of a new technology.

The more open you are, the more credible you are as a government when you make up your mind. It is also important that the citizens understand that there is uncertainty in nanotechnology, for instance, the toxicology part.

We had a public debate on GM food which went completely wrong. The public perceived that the government had already decided and was trying to push GM technology.

The credibility of the debate was eroded and it further eroded the credibility of biotech sciences itself.



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Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
Re: None said ‘there are risks, so let's stop it!'

Nanotechnology Risks

Ready or not, here it comes. In the next 20 years, nanotechnology will touch the life of nearly every person on the planet. The potential benefits are mind boggling and brain enhancing. But like many of the great advancements in earth's history, it is not without risk Here are some of the risks posed to society by nanotechnology.

Real Risk: Nanopollutants
When: Now

Nanopollutants are nanoparticles small enough to enter your lungs or be absorbed by your skin. Nanopollutants can be natural or man-made. Nanoparticles are used in some of the products found on shelves today, like anti-aging cosmetics and sunscreen. The highest risk is to the workers in nano-technology research and manufacturing processes.

Potential Risk: Privacy Invasion
When: 5 to 15 years

Virtually undetectable surveillance devices could dramatically increase spying on governments, corporations and private citizens.

Potential Risk: Economic Upheaval
When: 10 to 20 years

Molecular manufacturing is the assembly of products one molecule at a time. It could make the same products you see today, but far more precisely and at a very low cost. It is unclear whether this would bring boom or bust to the global economy.

Potential Risk: Nanotech weapons
When: 10 to 20 years

Untraceable weapons made with nanotechnology could be smaller than an insect with the intelligence of a supercomputer. Possible nano and bio technology arms race.

Far-Fetched Risk: Gray Goo
When: 30+ years

Free range, self-replicating robots that consume all living matter. However unlikely, experts say this scenario is theoretically possible, but not for some time.
We have just scratched the surface.
There are many areas of nanotechnology science that hold potential dangers to society. Bio-engineering and artificial intelligence for example, have their own set of risks.
As we enter an era of unprecedented understanding, it is important that society takes a proactive role in the responsible development of nanotechnology.



Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
Re: None said ‘there are risks, so let's stop it!'

Health Risks Of Nanotechnology: How Nanoparticles Can Cause Lung Damage, And How The Damage Can Be Blocked

ScienceDaily (June 11, 2009) — Scientists have identified for the first time a mechanism by which nanoparticles cause lung damage and have demonstrated that it can be combated by blocking the process involved, taking a step toward addressing the growing concerns over the safety of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology, the science of the extremely tiny (one nanometre is one-billionth of a metre), is an important emerging industry with a projected annual market of around one trillion US dollars by 2015. It involves the control of atoms and molecules to create new materials with a variety of useful functions, including many that could be exceptionally beneficial in medicine. However, concerns are growing that it may have toxic effects, particularly damage to the lungs. Although nanoparticles have been linked to lung damage, it has not been clear how they cause it.

In a study published online June 11 in the newly launched Journal of Molecular Cell Biology Chinese researchers discovered that a class of nanoparticles being widely developed in medicine - ployamidoamine dendrimers (PAMAMs) – cause lung damage by triggering a type of programmed cell death known as autophagic cell death. They also showed that using an autophagy inhibitor prevented the cell death and counteracted nanoparticle-induced lung damage in mice.

"This provides us with a promising lead for developing strategies to prevent lung damage caused by nanoparticles. Nanomedicine holds extraordinary promise, particularly for diseases such as cancer and viral infections, but safety concerns have recently attracted great attention and with the technology evolving rapidly, we need to start finding ways now to protect workers and consumers from any toxic effects that might come with it," said the study's leader, Dr. Chengyu Jiang, a molecular biologist at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, China.

The first nanomaterial was developed by German scientists in 1984. Nanomaterials are now used in a variety of products, including sporting goods, cosmetics and electronics. The fact that unusual physical, chemical, and biological properties can emerge in materials at the nanoscale makes them particularly appealing for medicine. Scientists hope nanoparticles will be able to improve the effectiveness of drugs and gene therapy by carrying them to the right place in the body and by targeting specific tissues, regulating the release of drugs and reducing damage to healthy tissues. They also envision the possibility of implantable nano devices that would detect disease, treat it and report to the doctor automatically from inside the body. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved some first generation nanodrugs. One example is Abraxane, a nanoformulation of the anti-cancer chemotherapy paclitaxel.
Lung damage is the chief human toxicity concern surrounding nanotechnology, with studies showing that most nanoparticles migrate to the lungs. However, there are also worries over the potential for damage to other organs.

In the study, the researchers first showed, through several independent experiments, that several types of PAMAMs killed human lung cells in the lab. They did not observe any evidence that the cells were dying by apoptosis, a common type of programmed cell death. However, they found that the particles triggered autophagic cell death through the Akt-TSC2-mTOR signalling pathway. Autophagy is a process that degrades damaged materials in a cell and plays a normal part in cell growth and renewal, but scientists have found that sometimes an overactivity of this destruction process leads to cell death.

The researchers also found that treating the cells with an autophagy inhibitor known as 3MA significantly inhibited the process, increasing the number of cells that survived exposure to the nanoparticles. "Those results, taken together, showed that autophagy plays a critical role in the nanoparticle-induced cell death," said Dr. Jiang.

The scientists then tested their findings in mice. They found that introducing the toxic nanoparticles significantly increased lung inflammation and death rates in the mice, but injecting the mice with the autophagy inhibitor 3MA before introducing the nanoparticles significantly ameliorated the lung damage and improved survival rates. "These experiments indicate that autophagy is indeed involved in lung damage caused by these nanoparticles and that inhibition of this process might have therapeutic effects," Dr. Jiang said. "We will likely need to look for additional new inhibitors to block lung damage as this particular compound is not stable in humans, but this gives us a promising lead for the first time."

"Our study has identified the principle for developing such compounds. The idea is that, to increase the safety of nanomedicine, compounds could be developed that could either be incorporated into the nano product to protect against lung damage, or patients could be given pills to counteract the effects," Dr. Jiang said, adding that the findings could also provide important insight into how nanopaticles cause other toxic effects.
It is not clear whether other types of nanoparticles would cause lung damage via the same mechanism, but some may, Dr. Jiang said. The group's research also suggests that blocking autophagic cell death could perhaps be useful in combating other causes of lung damage.