Scientists say nanotechnology, which involves some of the smallest things on earth, could have a big impact in developing countries. And some of the biggest benefits could come in improving health.
Nanotechnology refers to the ability to manipulate materials on the nanometer scale.
How small is that? A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter - something like the length of a line,10 atoms long.
That's hard to grasp, so nanotech scientist Andrew Maynard explains it with an analogy. If you can imagine a child the size of the Moon, "a tennis ball will be something like 50 nanometers in diameter. Or the head of a pin will be one nanometer in diameter. So the difference in scale, going from human scale to the nanoscale, is the equivalent of taking the moon and putting the head of a pin on the moon."
Maynard is chief scientist at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, part of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. At a recent symposium, he said researchers have been using nanotechnology to create products like cosmetics and stain resistant clothing. But some of the most promising uses of nanotechnology are in the health field.
In sub-Saharan Africa each year, malaria kills a million children under the age of five. A big part of the malaria challenge is correctly diagnosing patients. Often, anti-malaria drugs are given without a proper diagnosis, to people who may not have malaria. That's not only wasteful, it contributes to drug resistance. Peter Singer of the University of Toronto says a nanotechnology called quantum dots could make it much easier to correctly diagnose malaria, instead of using the traditional method of examining a patient's blood under a microscope.
"The bottom line," says Singer, "is that changing the infrastructure from moderate infrastructure like microscopes, to minimal infrastructure, like the quantum dots I was showing you, saves hundreds of thousands of lives for malaria. So this is a serious public health issue at stake, just from a diagnostic."
In addition to better diagnostics, nanotechnology could also help in treating disease. For example, as Piotr Grodzinski of the U.S. National Cancer Institute points out, it could help make existing medicines more effective. "You can develop techniques which allow [doctors] to deliver the therapeutic drug or therapeutic treatment locally to the tumor site, and in many cases use much lower dose of the drug, and by that means cause lower side effects."
Advances in nanotechnology are coming out of labs in the usual advanced countries. But scientists in developing and emerging countries - China, India and Brazil, for example - are also involved. However, as program moderator Jeff Spieler of the U.S. Agency for International Development cautioned, it's still a big step getting those innovations to some of the world's poorest people.
"This to some extent will depend on how many of the new innovations will actually be coming from the laboratories of less developed countries," said Spieler, "and then what is the likelihood of that these advances, even in those laboratories, will find their way into the indigenous populations of those countries and not be picked up by somebody else?"
Although nanotech experts stress the potential benefits from the new technology, they also concede that there are risks involved in working with these new nano materials. Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson Center acknowledged the uncertainties.
"If you look at the very simplest case of nanometer-size particles, we know they behave differently in the body and in the environment [compared] to larger, more conventional particles," Maynard explained. "So yes, there are going to be a whole new set of risk issues we need to address, and that's going to require quite a substantial investment in new science to understand what those risks are, but also how to translate and transform that information into effective and safe ways of using the technologies."
Among those at risk could be workers involved in manufacturing new nano-scale materials, as well as consumers, such as those taking nano-based medicines.