Nanotechnology: Government Involvement
Current developments in nanotechnology are increasing at such a rapid pace that it is a challenge for any government to stay up-to-date with progress. Nanotechnology has received considerable attention from scientific communities and governments worldwide. The United States, France, Japan, and Canada have centers and government agencies where they make assessments of the potential risks and benefits to human health posed by nanotechnology. During the workshop, there were presentations on work by the United States and Canadian governments in the area of nanotechnology.
APPROACHES FROM THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT
The Canadian government sees its responsibility in terms of ensuring that their society will be able to interact with new technologies, contribute to them, and manage them as they develop. In order to do so, the Canadian government conducts discussions with more than 11 departments and agencies and holds workshops that bring people together and allow them to take leads on different issues. The Canadian government plans to continue this interdepartmental, interdisciplinary approach.
Nanotechnology is one of the priorities for the Canadian government, said Paul Glover, Health Canada. Canada wants to be a world leader in developing and applying twenty-first century technologies such as biotechnology, environmental technology, information and communication technologies, health technologies, and nanotechnology. In order to achieve these goals, the Canadian government invests about $45–50 million a year in nanotechnology. The Canadian government also has realized that it is time to break down barriers between research disciplines and to foster multidisciplinary approach. In this spirit, the government in Canada no longer funds one lab working on one item in isolation and favors a multi-faculty approach, where people with different backgrounds (physicists, biologists, and chemists) can work together on nanotechnology issues.
This approach encourages progress, and Canada is making big steps forward, said Glover.
Nanotechnology has tremendous potential, and the role of Canadian government is to produce a lasting social change and economic benefits to the country, said Glover. However, new technologies pose risks to the environment and human health and are not well understood, noted Glover. Because Canadian consumers are very proactive in the management of their own health and health-related information, the government needs to know the downsides of the new technologies and also how to manage the risks. Informing people about nanotechnology is critical and challenging, said Glover. Nanomaterials involve multiple chemicals and mixtures used over varying periods of time with varying levels of intensity. Therefore, a chemical-by-chemical risk assessment approach will not be effective. Thus, there is a need for government to update risk assessment methodologies via multidisciplinary approach with industry, different levels of government, and broad scientific input.
TECHNOLOGIES FOR IMPROVED RISK STRATIFICATION AND DISEASE PREVENTION: U.S. GOVERNMENTAL INVOLVEMENT
The U.S. government coordinates work on nanotechnology by 19 government agencies through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The goal of the NNI, which was enacted into legislation in 2003, is to use government funding and coordinate funding across all government agencies in order to enrich our nation’s economy, security, and quality of life by advancing the technology while protecting public health and the environment, said Clayton Teague of National Science Foundation and head of NNI. The NNI is coordinating the effort through a number of strategies and working groups. Some basic strategies are:
Encouraging basic research to achieve fundamental knowledge and understanding of nanoscale phenomena and processes.
Promoting applied research in specific “grand challenge” areas to accelerate transition of scientific discovery into innovative technologies.
Providing mechanisms to facilitate transfer of technology into commercial applications and to support basic and applied research.
Establishing research programs to understand the social, ethical, health, and environmental implications of the technology.
To accomplish theses goals, the NNI is encouraging inter- and multidisciplinary research through 16 centers of excellence located across the United States. These centers, either in university or governmental laboratories, provide best-in-the-world instrumentation and facilities available to researchers. In conjunction with the broad support of academic research, the NNI is also achieving the applied research goals through
Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
Nanotechnology at NIH
The budget for the Initiative for 2004 is $961 million and the government agencies are involved in all phases of research of nanomaterials. Included in the NNI, NIH spends $80 million a year on nanotechnology, and NIEHS contributes about $2.5 million per year, said William Suk of NIEHS. Approximately $1.1 million of the amount is funded by the Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP). At Michigan State University, SBRP-funded research is developing biomarkers and the use of functional nanostructures for groundwater remediation; at the University of California, San Diego, sensors for toxicity in genomics are being studied.
All the technologies that are being developed will produce large amounts of data; thus, scientists will need to develop new computational tools that can be used to refine the data collection, storage, analysis, and dissemination. They will also need to start focusing on real-time risk assessment to be able to make realtime decisions that will better prepare ourselves and the public for any potential exposure, noted Suk.
Biosensors, nanoprobes, and quantum dots have the potential to detect individual exposures and tissue distributions of toxins. The development of smart sensors would allow their use in population-based epidemiology studies aimed at developing better prevention tools. Two functions of nanoprobes are chelation and catalysis. Chelation should be used primarily for metals and radioactivity. It would bind to the hazardous agents with a high affinity immobilizing and concentrating them and allow the agents to be removed. Catalysis would convert the agents to a non-toxic form either through reduction or oxidation.
NIEHS also is attempting to look inside the cell quantitatively in real time, as well as in a special and temporal manner and is developing nanotechnology tools that can be used in systems biology. Today, we have the potential to possess tools that will enable us to understand how cells communicate with each other within the cell. It is very important to toxicology, because if we understand how cells network together we can understand how they can be perturbed, said Suk.
NIH is also working on developing the tools that can be engineered to detect physiological responses to exposures and to determine whether these tools can be used to intervene or intercede in the course of disease processes and interrupt the sequence of biochemical events involved in disease development, for example, tumor progression. Another tool that is being developed by NIH is remediation as a way of reducing the amount and toxicity of hazardous substances and as a way of preventing risk.
The potential ramifications of nanotechnology are important; however, their entry into the food chain and their bioavailability, accumulation, potential bio-
magnification, and toxicity are largely unknown. Thus, scientific results will have a very important impact on our future actions. Nanotechnology is a highly interdisciplinary field, and it will present a substantial number of challenges, concluded Suk.
Technology and U.S. Regulation
According to Teague, the government has active efforts under way, involving all the regulatory agencies as well as research agencies, examining the degree to which the existing statutes cover the risk that we might be having from nanoscale materials.
Furthermore, federal laboratories, academia, and industry are conducting research into how the new nanoscale materials—especially nanoengineered materials—may or may not differ from the ones that have already been researched, such as ultrafine particles and other materials that have been in our environment for a long time.
The government is keeping an eye on the nanomaterials used in commerce and is trying to understand risk characteristics and risk assessment of the products used in the marketplace from each category of nanoscale materials. Since nanotechnology engages many different disciplines, different agencies are involved in risk assessment and regulation. They communicate with each other and try to ensure that the nanoscale materials are covered by the existing regulations, noted Teague. Some of the new nanoscale materials can be incorporated into existing statutes and regulations; others require new evaluation because their properties are different from those of the existing regulated materials and they need to be assigned new Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) numbers. The government is working closely with industry, academia, and researchers to evaluate the new chemicals and ensure that new CAS numbers are issued to all the new nanomaterials.
The NNI strategy is to ensure the long-term results of nanotechnology, both in terms of preserving the environment and providing means that will prevent further damage. If the promise of nanotechnology holds true, there are many opportunities for remediating and improving the existing environment and, in turn, improving health through its environmental interactions, concluded Teague.