CHRISTIAN NEWS MAGAZINE FOR KERALA MALAYALEE CHRISTIANS FROM INDIA AROUND THE WORLD
FEBRUARY 2009 ARTICLE
VOL:08 ISSUE:02

NANOTECHNOLOGY : PROMISES AND CONCERNS
By DR. RAJAN M. THOMAS MSc, PhD - PENNSYLVANIA, USA

The last two decades have witnessed great strides in the field of science and technology. During this period, a technological revolution itself has been recorded in the fields of information technology and telecommunication. In a short span of time, technological advancement in these areas became very popular and reached into the masses of people all over the world. Communication through World Wide Web has opened the door towards an amazing world of all kinds of information and knowledge. Internet facilities are easily accessible in almost every parts of the world. Likewise, cell phones have also become very popular. These days, almost every adult in urban areas uses cell phones. The youngsters are very much accustomed to these facilities and it would be hard for them to even think about a life without these facilities. The technological boom is not confined in above cited fields alone; it is also noticeable in several other fields like biotechnology, biomedical, pharmaceutical, automobile, computer, electronics, aviation, space and navigation fields.

What would be the next phase of scientific growth and development? People are waiting for more technological wonders to happen. It is beyond doubt that more technological wonders are awaiting and almost certain that these wonders are going to be from the field of nanotechnology. Twenty-first century is gong to be known as century of nanotechnology.

What is nanotechnology? The prefix word ‘nano’ is very familiar to many people. It is associated with units of very small measures, but how much small a nano unit is? Nano scale is a fraction of 1/1000,000,000. Suppose one meter of a thin wire is divided into one billion equal pieces and then a single piece is taken out to express its size. It can be expressed as 1 nanometer. One nanogram means 1/1000,000,000 of a gram. Nanotechnology refers to a wide variety of technological applications with a resolution of efficiency, usually at a scale of 1-to 100-nanometer level. This technology is overlapped into several multidisciplinary fields like biotechnology, biomedicine, organic chemistry, polymer chemistry, computer engineering, electronics, mechanics etc. The great excitement of this technology is that very high precision molecular tools can be developed using nano technology and these nano-sized tools can be incorporated into a wide variety of equipments, machines, computers and robotic machines in order to improve the working efficiency of tools and equipments. The equipments and tools empowered with nanotech will have high accuracy, and precision and can be built for multi-tasking. The efficiency and performance limit of all these equipments would be unimaginably very high. Another advantage of this technology is that size of heavier and bulkier sized machines and tools, which are used for various purposes, can be minimized to smaller, lightweight, and portable size.

Right now, nanotechnology is mostly at the developing stage, yet, in some fields nano technological applications have already been made available. Several countries, especially US, European countries, Japan, Russia, China and India are very actively investing money for the research leading to the development of nanotechnology tools. Currently, extensive basic research is going on in several research laboratories throughout the world to study the basic principles of various macromolecular attributes under variable physical and chemical conditions. Technology emerges from science. Technological advancement occurs when basic scientific ideas and discoveries are translated in the form of technology. When nano-technology becomes fully operational, what people thought impossible once, will become possible and nano technological developments are going to revolutionize the entire world and every aspects of social life. The applications of nanotechnology are very vast and will be identified in almost all areas, especially in medicine, energy sectors, electronics, robotics, space engineering, food chemistry, environmental engineering, etc.

Nano-Medicine:
Perhaps the most striking impact of nanotechnological applications would be in the medical field. This technology could really revolutionize the current treatment strategies for various health problems. Currently, nanomedicine is a part of the molecular medicine and mostly at experimental stage. However, already some advances have been reported in the development of tools and drugs based on nano technology. Some of these nano drugs found to be effective for cancer treatment and autoimmune diseases are being further tested for their efficacy or they are in clinical trials. In USA, National Institute of Health (NIH), a federal funding agency, supports research on nanomedicine.

Currently researchers working on nano-medicine focus mainly on the development of gene target delivery drugs capable of delivering drugs or inhibitors at specific locations in the genes, so that several diseases like autoimmune, neurological and cancer can be treated and cured very effectively. Very active research is going on in this area. The great potential of gene target specific drugs is that serious health problems, for example, various types of cancers, arising due to mutations in the vital genes can be rectified using this approach and in the future, several fatal diseases would be under control. Severe health problems like cardiac problems, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and several types of autoimmune diseases including diabetes will be treated very effectively. The people suffering from these diseases will be greatly benefited by advances in nanotechnology research and applications.

The nano medicine is being tested for safe drug delivery as well as increased bioavailability to the target organ; therefore, adverse effect of drugs on other biological systems can be minimized to a greater level. Drugs combined with nano-sized carrier molecules will deliver the drugs to the exact locations and once they are delivered in the target tissues, the drugs will be released into the affected tissues in a controlled manner, so that drugs can work very effectively on the affected organs or tissues. Capsule like devices containing nano sensors capable of detecting the changes in the various cellular metabolisms, can be inserted under the skin, or elsewhere in the body. Depending on the case and situation, these sensors can respond to the metabolic changes and would signal for the release of nano drugs into the blood circulation. The future nano drugs are designed to have less toxic side effects and they will have target specific effect.

Nanotech computerized equipments capable of analyzing the human genome will be extensively used in the medical field for the detection of genetic problems arising out of gene mutations and also for early detection of genetic diseases. It is important to mention that the responses of the biological systems to the effects of drugs are not even in all patients. It has been found that some of the effectively working drugs are least effective in some individuals due to the altered metabolism as a result of small variations in the gene sequence. Genome analyzers will be very useful for identifying people with variant genes so that suitable drugs can be selected for those patients. Complete nucleotide sequence structure of the human genome is available now and this in fact was a great milestone in the path of scientific developments in cell biology. The very famous human genome-sequencing project was a great venture and it took 13 years to decipher the complete human genome sequence. Project cost was 2.6 billion dollars. At present, technology is being improved to sequence the genetic material, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) at much faster speed and aimed to develop DNA sequencers capable of analyzing the whole genome in a very short period of time. Nano sequencers or nano chip analyzers are in the process of manufacturing. These fully automated machines will be able to provide DNA sequence readout of samples from patients in a very short period of time. A drop of blood will be sufficient enough to know the complete genetic history of the patients; in this case, blood is fed into a device, which will automatically extract DNA from blood cells, process it and is released into the chamber of a devise, where DNA is hybridized with nanochip sequence to identify the gene mutations or errors anywhere in the genome. If genome project took 13 years to complete, probably in less than one hour, a person can get a computer data of his/her DNA sequence read out. Based on genetic make up of a person, it would be possible to predict future health status of a person.

When this technology becomes fully operational, surgical procedures can be conducted very easily and in a safe manner. At present, loss of blood due to bleeding during surgical operations is quite common and to compensate the blood loss, matching blood type need to be identified and transfused into the vein of the patient. In some situations, the matching blood type may not be immediately available and there could be some time delay in getting matching blood type and just due to this reason, on several occasions, surgery can get delayed or postponed. Nanosurgery with surgical nano tools capable of cutting and separating in between layers of tissues or even in between two cells, without damaging the cells could make surgical procedures very safe. It makes the possibility of a bloodless surgery in the near future. The surgical nano tools operated by a computer or robot will have high precision and pathological tissues can be excised out very precisely without damaging adjacent normal tissues. This approach would really revolutionize the neuro-surgery procedures and will be a blessing for patients undergoing difficult neurosurgery.

The advanced computerized biomedical equipments and tools, which are made by incorporating nanotechnology in their working principle, would be used for disease diagnosis and treatment. These robotic machine doctors would predict the best treatment strategies, the type of drugs and dozes to be administered to cure the disease conditions. This will make the job of medical doctors very easy and in the future their jobs could be minimized to the level of health data analysts. When advanced machines are available to diagnose the disease and treatment strategies, the service of the highly paid medical doctors will no longer be required. Already a considerable amount of various disease diagnosis and drug selections are done with the help of computerized machines. Robotic machines equipped with nanotechnology tools to perform surgical operations would replace the human surgeons who could make human prone mistakes during surgery. Since these machines are very precise in their functions and not subjected to make any mistakes during a surgery, robotic surgery will be preferred by many patients in the near future. It is worthwhile to mention that the hospital of University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, has successfully tested the effectiveness of robotic machines in surgery.

Apart from medicine, a lot of several other fields are also going to witness the dramatic changes and growth due to the future application of nanotechnology. Nanotech tools and equipments will have wide use and application in almost every field. Engineered nano sized molecular compounds are being tested for purification of water and air. These nano compounds will trap and concentrate the hazardous materials present in the polluted air and water. Nano technology will also have its application in food preservation and checking the quality of food. For example, consumable food items packed in nanotech plastic bags will automatically indicate whether a food item is expired or fit for consumption. Nano sized sensor coatings on packaging bags will detect the oxidative changes in the food particles as well as the presence of contaminating and adulterated stuff inside the package. In textile industry fabrics made of nanotech synthetic fibers will be incorporated in clothe making. Instead of heavy and thick jackets, lightweight weatherproof clothing, which can keep the body warm in winter and cool in summer will be a future preferred item in the market. Instead of a regular type shirt, a similar one with bulletproof feature would be available in the market. Nanotechnology will have tremendous application in spacecraft engineering and in the future, we can expect cheaper space travel and missions. In the near future, several nano products with surprising features will be available in the market.

Major concerns and ethical issues of nanotechnology
Science and technology, in the true sense, stands for the betterment of human life and has been developed for minimizing the daily life tasks of the people in a much easier, comfortable and enjoyable manner. But science and technological achievements are often misused for political gains and with selfish motives by powerful lobbies. While scientists who invent the technology have no real control over their inventions, major political powers and industrial groups easily gain control over the technology, which is used according to their will and wish. Technology can be used for both good and bad purposes. Whether technology is used for good or bad purpose, it depends on the intension of the ones who acquire the technology and the way in which technology is being used. For instance, peace-loving nations use nuclear technology for power generation and for industrial purpose, whereas the rogue nations use the same technology for making nuclear arsenals of mass destruction.

Even though the extent of various ethical issues related to the nanotechnology has not yet been fully determined, it is expected to have equal or similar kind of concerns and issues as in the case of nuclear technology, stem cell research and animal cloning. The countries that become more successful in the development of nanotechnology devices could use it as means to strengthen their political power, just like nuclear power countries dictate terms and conditions for other nations. Nanotechnology will find its large-scale applications in the sophistication of currently used weapons. More advanced and powerful weapons can be manufactured based on this technology. Miniature lethal weapons or pen sized guns could be made based on nanotech methods; many anti-social elements could easily acquire nano-weapons to kill or inflicting injuries on their enemies. Mass destructive, easily concealable, and portable weapons are going to be one of the potential threats and major concern in the near future. Terrorists could acquire these weapons to terrorize the people and nations. Misuse of nanotechnology could create more chaos and troubles in the society.

Marketing of nanotech devices can bring lot of revenues to the countries where these technologies are successfully developed. Rapid economic growth could change current economic strength of nations, and could lead to unhealthy competition and power struggle. Powerful industrial lobbies and business firms based on nanotechnology could emerge and they might take control of several small scale and conventional business groups. Traditional business could totally disappear from the market and those who engaged with the same could suffer from major economic loses.

Wide use of nanotechnology in biomedical field could lead to several unethical treatment practices in medicine. Nanotech devices and methods could unconventionally be used for determining the future fate of an embryo. Using special devices, cell samples could be removed from embryos, which will subsequently be analyzed in nanotech gene sequencers to predict the future health problems of the baby in the womb. This would lead to unethical termination of several pregnancies. If future diseases can be predicted using nanotech devices, then most likely, life insurance companies could ask health report from people before they issue policies to the customers.

One of the main concerns associated with nano technology is extent of its impact on nature. Nanotechnological devices and tools can increasingly be employed for mining and exploitation of natural resources. This could lead to severe ecological imbalances and environmental degradation. God has created this earth for all living beings. Like humans, plants and all animal species are needed natural resources for their survival. God expects humans to live in harmony with all ecological elements of the nature. It is a crime against God and nature, if indiscriminate human activities for tapping of natural resources using modern technological tools, cause ecological imbalance and havoc in nature. God created this earth with vast number of plants and animals and they should get their own share of resources from this nature. Humans have no right to destroy the nature and creating situations that threaten the very survival of plant and animal species on earth. Even though technology is an aid for humans, it should not be misused to inflict irreparable injuries on nature.

Even though technology has several positive points, people should also be aware of its negative sides. Too much dependence on technology is not good. It also has a potential to create a negative impact on social aspects of life. Earlier, people were capable of living in any adverse conditions but these days, with out modern facilities, it is very hard for them to live even for a short while. Even though use of advanced technical tools can save time and labor, its increased use will make a generation of people who are intellectually backward and with poor problem solving skills. When equipments and tools are available to solve a problem, people will not think about various options and novel ways to solve a task or a problem. Studies show that extensive use of calculator and computer by younger generation of society, have made them ill efficient in doing mental mathematics. They have to depend on calculator even for solving simple arithmetic problems. As a result of extensive use of advanced technology, a high tech society might evolve with new generation of people who are too lazy and backward in creative thinking and intellectual capacity. Intellectual capacity could be confined in a minority of population who are engaged in art, science, and engineering. The current pace of use of technology indicates that society is gradually becoming a slave of modern technology rather than being its real master. People in society have to preserve their human qualities like intellectual power, skills, imagination, and creativity, otherwise society will become stand still and no further progress will occur.

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