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NUE 2003-2004



Current Assignments

Nanotechnology and Innovations in the Medical Field:
Applying the Precautionary Principle to Smart Drugs

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***** Assignment *****
  1. Assignment (HTML) - This Page
  2. Assignment and Article (DOC)
  3. Web article: http://www.crnano.org/precautionary.htm


The concept of nanotechnology is associated with the manipulation of matter at the scale of atoms and molecules. The potential medical applications of nanotechnology are significant, with human-engineered devices interacting with biological processes in sophisticated ways. An example of such an application would be the creation of a "smart drug," a nano-scale device designed to perform a particular medical task. Examples of such tasks range from destroying cancer cells and cleaning out clogged arteries to constructing needed proteins or mimicking anti-bodies.

Although this technology promises to deliver numerous benefits to society, there are also concerns associated with manipulating living material at this scale. The concerns include:

  • Environmental contamination. Smart drugs and other nano-devices used in medical applications could contaminate the environment after being expelled from the body.

  • Mutation. Smart drugs or other nano-devices capable of manipulating organic molecules could interact with cellular activity in unexpected ways.

  • Runaway condition. A smart drug or nano-device capable of replicating itself could result in a runaway condition.

  • Weapons. This technology has the potential to be used as a weapon that would be difficult to control.

Clearly, the technology is in its infancy. The applications referred to above--and the concerns that come with them--are years away. However, successful innovations can diffuse rapidly, and addressing concerns after a technology takes root in a society is difficult. As a result, the federal government is encouraging researchers and engineers to identify and seriously discuss potential concerns as they proceed in developing the science and technology associated with nano-scale devices.

Here, you are being asked to apply an ethical guideline known as the "precautionary principle" to generate a set of policy recommendations for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF provides research funds to scientists and engineers. This case example is more open-ended than those that focus on decisions leading to specific design failures, but the concern it addresses is just as real.


  1. Read the synopsis as a group and discuss the following questions before performing any additional research.

    • Chemical engineers have been manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular level for years. For example, even the simplest chemical reaction involves changes at the atomic and molecular level. In what way is nanotechnology new and different?

    • Advances in genetic engineering already allow firms to manipulate organisms in complex ways. Is there anything about nano-scale devices and their potential interactions with cells that raise different concerns?

    • Organic cells can already reproduce themselves and mutate. Is there anything that makes nano-scale devices with an ability to create new proteins or other material more dangerous?

    • Our society already has lots of testing procedures that firms must perform before they receive approval to release a new drug. Would these existing regulations be sufficient for smart drugs? Why or why not?

  2. Perform the research necessary to get more information about nanotechnology, smart drugs, medical ethics, and the ethical guideline known as the "precautionary principle."

  3. Write a two-page report that applies the precautionary principle to the development of this technology. Your report should:

    • Evaluate the state of the art in nanotechnology and the potential for significant innovations to occur in the medical field.

    • Evaluate the concerns associated with this technology by comparing it with the concerns of similar technologies.

    • Define what is meant by the precautionary principle.

    • Generate specific guidelines based on the precautionary principle and your evaluation of the technology.

  4. Your report should document your sources.

  5. Prepare an eight-minute presentation for the class. This should include a two-minute question and answer session. Your presentation needs to include:

    • Title and Introduction slides.

    • Synopis of the issue, including a brief description of nanotechnology, its potential medical applications, and the concerns associated with those applications.

    • A definition of the precautionary principle

    • Recommendations based on your applications of the precautionary principle.

  6. Be prepared to answer pointed questions from the audience that challenge the recommendations you make.


  1. Some useful books on nanotechnology are: Mark Ratner and Daniel Ratner, Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea (Prentice Hall, 2003); B. C. Crandall, ed., Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance (MIT Press, 1996); David E. Newton, Recent Advances in Molecular Nanotechnology (Greenwood Press, 2002); Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001).

  2. A book that explores ethical concerns associated with technological advances in the medical field is Gregory E. Pence. Re-creating Medicine: Ethical Issues at the Frontier of Medicine (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000). The following article discusses the risk of nanotechnology: "Point of Impact--Chemist Vicki Colvin on the Safety of Nanotechnology," in Technology Review 106, no. 3 (2003): 71-74. A good general survey with articles on many aspects of engineering and ethics is Joseph R. Herkert, ed., Social, Ethical, and Policy Implications of Engineering: Selected Readings Piscataway, NJ: IEEE Press, 2000).

  3. Numerous websites discuss the precautionary principle. However, many define the concept in slightly different ways. Be sure to examine several discussions of the precautionary principle.

  4. Your recommendations should be designed to guide program officers at NSF in their decisions involving the development of nano-devices in the medical field. (Are people getting excited about nothing or do serious concerns exist? If the latter, what guidelines should the NSF use in shaping the development of the field through its funding decisions?)