Sunday, May 28, 2006

Magic Non-Nano

It’s official. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung) released findings on Friday that suggest that the health problems caused by Magic Nano (see nano|public posting from April 5, 2006) had nothing to do with and did not contain nanoparticles.

“Immediately after the occurrence of the first cases, BfR set out obtaining the exact formulation of the products from the manufacturers in order to establish the causes of the incidents. An expert meeting with the companies responsible for manufacturing the sprays at BfR on 23 May 2006 revealed that the products do not, in fact, contain any nano particles (particles below a size of 100 nanometres). This was also confirmed by chemical analyses commissioned by BfR from two specialist laboratories. Hence, nano particles are not a potential cause of the health problems experienced by users.”

Kleinmann GmbH, the manufacturer of Magic Nano, also tried to set the record straight on a number of allegations that had been raised by regulatory bodies and media outlets, including the suspicion that Kleinmann had illegally used a TÜV seal of approval (see nano|public posting from April 14, 2006). Bernd Zimmermann, Director of Sales at Kleinmann, gave an in-depth interview to the German trade magazine PBS Report, talking about potential public backlashes and the technical issues involved with the non-nano recall of their product (click here for a PDF version of the interview).

(click here for Kleinmann’s Web pages devoted to Magic Nano).

As science funding increases, literacy decreases

The New York Times reported on the results of the 2005 National and State Science Assessment study. Scores for 12th graders, the study shows, fell from 57 percent getting a basic or higher proficiency score in 1996 to 54 percent in 2005.

This is consistent with the scientific literacy trend data published by the National Science Foundation for the general U.S. population.

All of these findings further support the notion that current models of public science education have only limited success. While science funding has steadily increased over time (with a fixed Congressionally-mandated percentage for some funding areas being devoted to ELSI issues), literacy is declining or at least not increasing at the rate that could be expected.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Business and science frames in media on the decline; is a broader public debate about to start?

Barnaby J. Feder of the New York Times wrote a piece this past week about “Technology’s Future: A Look at the Dark Side.” Aside from the title, the piece is interesting for two reasons.

First, Feder at the New York Times and Rick Weiss at the Washinton Post have written many of the early nanotech stories, and their departmental affiliations have influenced the spin they took on nanotechnology. Rick Weiss is a science writer and Barnaby Feder is a business reporter, and – not surprisingly – early coverage of nanotech emphasized the economic and scientific potential of this new technology. Now, we are seeing critical pieces from both Feder and Weiss. Weiss recently wrote about his concerns about long-term effect of nano particles on lab workers who are exposed to these materials. Feder now writes in the Business section about the need for government oversight in order to appease increasingly concerned consumers.

If the biotechnology experience is a guide, getting governments more involved in nanotechnology risk management and educating consumers may generate profits in the long term.

"Companies need to embrace government oversight that makes consumers comfortable, and they need to offer people choices," said Rebecca J. Goldburg, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense. "Once people are empowered to make choices, they will often take what appears to be riskier options."

The second interesting aspect of Feder’s piece is the fact that the only quotes in the article come from Environmental Defense. This is not necessarily Feder’s fault and most definitely does not mean that the article is one-sided. Rather it shows who dominates public discussion about the societal implications of nano. Similar to biotech, scientists, governmental officials, and representatives from industry are strangely absent from public discourse, and leave it up to opponents of the new technology to set the dominant frames for societal discours.

(Partnership agreement between Environmental Defense and DuPont)

Claudia H. Deutsch added an interesting aspect to the debate with her piece in the New York Times on collaborations between companies and critics.

Environmental Defense wants chicken farmers to stop using antibiotics to spur growth. It wants strict controls on the budding field of nanotechnology. It wants fewer gas guzzlers on the road.

Not long ago, when it was still the in-your-face Environmental Defense Fund, the group would have looked for a company to sue, boycott or at least protest. Nowadays, it is looking for companies that can help it out.

"Our informal motto used to be 'Sue the bastards,' " Fred Krupp, the group's president, said. "Now our official tagline is, 'Finding the ways that work.' "

So Environmental Defense enlisted McDonald's to put pressure on chicken suppliers; Tyson Foods, for one, has already responded by slashing its antibiotic use. It worked with DuPont on nanotechnology regulations that both hope to prod Congress to pass. It joined with FedEx and the Eaton Corporation to convert part of the FedEx truck fleet to hybrid vehicles. The trucks are already being rolled out nationally.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences: Less toxic, breathable anticancer agents?

"As anticancer agents go, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) belongs to the category of drugs that have reasonable tumor-killing activity but whose use is limited by adverse side effects that occur at even moderate doses of the drug. Now, a series of papers published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences has demonstrated that lipid-coated polymer nanoparticles may significantly alter the balance between efficacy and toxicity. As an added benefit, these nanoparticles can be breathed into the lungs and may therefore be useful for delivering sustained doses of 5-FU for treating lung cancer.

Timothy Wiedmann, Ph.D., and Lee Wattenberg, M.D., both of the University of Minnesota, led a team of investigators that created and tested a variety of nanoparticle and microparticle formulations to identify which might serve as a useful delivery vehicle for 5-FU. The idea behind this research was the understanding that 5-FU’s cancer killing activity is limited by the fact that the drug is not toxic until the body first adds what is known as a triphosphate group to the drug molecule. Unfortunately, the body can convert only about 20 percent of an injected dose into the active form before the rest of the dose is excreted."

(For the full nanotech wire article, click here.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Rallying against the unknown?

Patti Glaza of SmallTimes has a very good column in the May/June issue of her magazine, calling on industry to take a more pro-active role in communicating with journalists and the public during crises, such as the recent Magic Nano recall in Germany. And many of here recommendations are well taken. Toward the end she asks:
"Could there be a public backlash against nano? Sure. But it is hard to rally against something that is so difficult to define.”

This is an interesting conclusion, and I am not sure I agree. In fact, I am convinced that the “Frankenfood” label in the GMO debate worked very well precisely because it was vague and played to fears of the unknown.

Similarly, comparisons between nano and asbestos evoke fears about what we don’t know, and the idea that nano is everywhere without much regulation or oversight, may be the perfect frame to use for opponents of this new technology.

Greenpeace and others want nano sunscreen recalled

A number of consumer and environmental groups -- including Greenpeace -- called on the FDA yesterday to introduce tougher regulations on sunscreens that contain certain types of nanoparticles:

May 17, 2006 - Sunscreens made with submicroscopic particles pose a health hazard and should be recalled, environmental groups said Tuesday in asking the government to increase regulation of growing uses of the science of nanotechnology.

The petition asked the Food and Drug Administration to strengthen its regulation of sunscreens that contain nano-sized titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, saying particles of those minute dimensions pose health and environmental risks, including possible inflammatory and immune responses in the human body. Eight groups, including the International Center for Technology Assessment, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, filed the petition.

For the full SmallTimes article, click here. A Washington Post article by Rick Weiss provides more background on initial reactions by industry representatives:

The FDA regulates sunscreens as nonprescription drugs and does not require extra safety tests specific for nanoparticles. The agency has little authority over cosmetics.

But John Bailey, a vice president at the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, a trade group, said his level of confidence in the safety of those products is "very high."

(Click here for the full Washington Post article)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Food industry being cautious about nanotech and public backlash

According to a recent Lux Research report, the U.S. food and drink industry has been restricting their use of nano materials largely to packaging, food safety, and other applications, such antimicrobial sensors and printable RFID tags.

What is particularly interesting is that Lux Research identifies fears about the potential unknown health risks of nanotechnology as one of the key reasons for the somewhat restrictive use of nano in this area so far. If their assessments are accurate, we may be witnessing an interesting spin-off of the precautionary principle, where the possibility of a public opinion backlash is enough to make companies delay the implementation of new technologies until concerns – justified or not – can be addressed.

Here are some excerpts from a piece, summarizing the report:

Safety concerns and a need for regulation before products are introduced are some of the constraints that could hold the industry back from exploiting the technology with more gusto.


Lux Research senior analyst Mark Bünger, one of the authors of a new report into the technology, says the food and drink industry will benefit through relatively mundane improvements in food cost, packaging, and safety, rather than from direct product applications.


"There are real risks and perceived risks," he said. "Even in nanofoods, the perceived risks are much larger than the actual risks. Companies need to do their labwork and be completely transparent with the results – that's the only way to work."

Click here for the full story on

Monday, May 08, 2006

More coverage of medical nano applications

Nano may soon allow amputees to better control prosthetic devices and help scientists build nanoparticles that hunt and destroy cancer cells, according to studies released by Triton BioSystems and the University of Texas Medical Branch.

In medicine, small is about to become big: Nanotechnology is poised to make huge leaps in the treatment of disease at the cellular level

By Stephen Heuser, Globe Staff | May 8, 2006

CHICAGO -- In a darkened conference room, at the country's largest gathering of biotech e
xecutives, the slides clicked onto the screen with as much punch and drama as a black-and-white micrograph can pack.

In the first frame, highly magnified cancer cells appeared, surrounded by tiny black dots. In the second frame, cells were gone -- dissolved into a mass of goo.

The tiny black dots were manmade particles that hunt down cancer cells and perch around their edges. The particles start heating up when hit with a powerful magnetic field. The effect on a cancer cell is not unlike that of a hammer on a water balloon.

''People think it's unbelievable that such a technology exists," said Samuel Straface, who had shown the slides only to a handful of potential investors before presenting them at the Biotech Industry Organization conference last month.
(For the full article, click here.)

The article refers to Triton BioSystem’s Targeted Nano-Therapeutics™ (TNT™) System. Here’s a summary graph on the principle behind the cancer-killing technology from their web site:

The second story is about nanotube structures that help cells grow or serve as an interface between living tissue and prosthetic devices. The study appeared in the most recent issue of Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology:

Biocompatibility of Native and Functionalized Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes for Neuronal Interface, Anton V. Liopo, Michael P. Stewart, Jared Hudson, James M. Tour, and Todd C. Pappas, J. Nanosci. Nanotechnol. 6, 1365–1374 (2006)

Here’s the press release by UTMB:
Nanotubes used for first time to send signals to nerve cells

GALVESTON, Texas --Texas scientists have added one more trick to the amazing repertoire of carbon nanotubes -- the ability to carry electrical signals to nerve cells.

Nanotubes, tiny hollow carbon filaments about one ten-thousandth the diameter of a human hair, are already famed as one of the most versatile materials ever discovered. A hundred times as strong as steel and one-sixth as dense, able to conduct electricity better than copper or to substitute for silicon in semiconductor chips, carbon nanotubes have been proposed as the basis for everything from elevator cables that could lift payloads into Earth orbit to computers smaller than human cells.

Thin films of carbon nanotubes deposited on transparent plastic can also serve as a surface on which cells can grow. And as researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) and Rice University suggest in a paper published in the May issue of the Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, these nanotube films could potentially serve as an electrical interface between living tissue and prosthetic devices or biomedical instruments.

(For the full press release, click here.)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Center for Nanotechnology in Society officially opens at UCSB

The Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UCSB had its official launch Thursday night in Santa Barbara. The center is the second of its kind, after ASU’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society opened earlier this year. Both centers are being funded under the Nanoscale Science and Engineering program at NSF, which is one of 22 federal agencies in the government-wide National Nanotechnology Initiative, and will explore a broad array of issues related to the ethical, legal, economic, and social implications of nanotechnology.

Here’s more information on CNS-UCSB from the UCSB Daily Nexus:

UCSB Opens New Nanotechnology Center

By Brian Van Wyk — Staff Writer

Published Friday May 5, 2006

Several scholars gathered in the Engineering Science Building last night for the public launch of the UCSB Center for Nanotechnology in Society - a national education and research base.

The CNS is funded by the National Science Foundation’s National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federal program that centers on the development of nanotechnology: Microscopic tools created to the scale of one-billionth of a meter, used to create and improve a wide range of materials.

The various speakers at the commencement included professionals in the sciences, arts and humanities - each of which presented a differing and sometimes skeptical view of the emerging field’s future. Dr. Barbara Herr Harthorn, CNS principal investigator and co-director, said the study of nanotechnology is a unique science because unusual properties can be found at such a small scale.

(For the full article, click here.)

Update: NSF also has an outline of both centers on their web site:

"The Santa Barbara center will receive about $5 million over five years to focus on the historical context of nanotechnology; on the innovation process and global diffusion of ideas in the field; and on risk perception and social response to nanotechnology, with a special focus on collective action and the action of global networks in response to nanotechnology. The center will also explore methods for public participation in setting the agenda for nanotechnology's future.

The Arizona State center will receive $6.2 million over five years to develop a broad program of "real-time technology assessment" (RTTA) for nanotechnology research. The center will use RTTA to map the research dynamics of nanotechnology; to monitor the changing values of the public and of researchers; to engage both these groups in deliberative and participatory forums regarding nanotechnology; and to assess the influence of these activities on the researchers. The center will organize its efforts around two broad nanotechnology-in-society themes: freedom, privacy, and security; and human identity, enhancement, and biology."

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Nanotech for the masses ... really?

Physicist Ivan Schuller of UCSD and producer Rich Wargo think they can bring "nano to the masses," as put it, with a short film about nanotechnology. The title? When Things Get Small (click here to see the RealVideo stream).

The movie feels like a mixture of Sesame Street and Bill Nye the Science Guy and probably works well for the same target audiences. But even though When Things Get Small may not have a broad impact on "the masses," the fact that a scientist is trying to disseminate his findings in creative ways is worth mentioning.

"Sure, the execution is goofy, but what’s novel here is the fact that the film represents a serious scientist disseminating his research findings to the public, in a format suitable for audiences “ages 15 to 85,” as Schuller likes to say. He could have just published his findings on nanotech in a prestigious journal and called it a day (which he’s been doing over a 30-year career in science). Instead he spent three years and $400,000 dollars, underwritten by the National Science Foundation, UCSD and others, to make a funny movie about his project."

Some of this is explained by Schuller's biography:

"Before becoming a scientist, Schuller studied theater in college, an avocation that sparked his passion for changing the way scientists communicate with the public. His shtick is science as entertainment, and "When Things Get Small" is his first film effort."

The idea of educating people through entertainment, of course, is not new and Schuller borrowed it from development communication scholars who used the same concept in the 1960s and 70s to raise awareness of available vaccinations or new types of seeds. It will be interesting to see how how well a half hour web-based movie will do in the age of 8-second sound bites and 10-second web site visits.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Sensatex SmartShirt goes beta

i4u news just blogged on the Sensatex nano SmartShirt for first responders, health monitoring, and athletes:
"Sensatex, a developer of integrated smart textile systems, announced the Beta launch of its SmartShirt System.

The Sensatex SmartShirt enables to remotely monitor a wearer's movement, heart rate, and respiration rate in real-time through a patented nanotechnology conductive fiber grid that is seamlessly knit into the material of the fully washable shirt."

(for the full posting, click here.)

Sensatex describes the technology
on their own web site:

"Sensatex has developed groundbreaking Interconnection Technology that allows sensing, monitoring, and information processing devices to be networked together within a fabric.

The Sensatex fabric was first developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Textile and Fiber Engineering under the auspices of the US military's 21st Century Land Warrior Program and the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the R&D arm of the US Department of Defense.

Our technology can be incorporated into any fabric (cotton, lycra, wool, silk, etc.) or blend of fabrics without effecting the look, feel or integrity of the fabric that it is replacing."

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Nanopills for soccer stars

Dietary supplements containing ground silicon particles (with a size of about one nanometer) supposedly speed up the healing process for soccer stars while they are recovering from injuries ... at least according to Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, team physician of Bayern München, one of Europe's premier professional soccer clubs.

Wohlfahrt's pills may not have anything to do with nanotechnology, but it probably won't be long until we see "nano" label used for sports drinks and dietary supplements anyway. With dietary supplements being a $17+ billion market in the U.S. alone (and a notoriously underregulated one), it will be interesting to see if and when the FDA starts paying attention.

(Click here for the full story).