Nanotechnology and Innovations in the Medical Field:
Applying the Precautionary Principle to Smart Drugs
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- 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
- 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.
- 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?
- Perform the research necessary to get more information about nanotechnology,
smart drugs, medical ethics, and the ethical guideline known as the "precautionary
- 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.
- Your report should document your sources.
- Prepare an eight-minute presentation for the class. This should include
a two-minute question and answer session. Your presentation needs to
- 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.
- Be prepared to answer pointed questions from the audience that challenge
the recommendations you make.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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?)