Webcast Recap

Andrew Maynard, Chief Scientist, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies;
Piotr Grodzinski, Director, Nanotechnology for Cancer Programs, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health;
Dr. Peter A. Singer, Senior Scientist, McLaughlin Rotman Centre, University Health Network; Professor, University of Toronto; and Distinguished Investigator, Canadian Institutes of Health Research; and
Jeff Spieler, (Moderator) Division Chief, Research, Technology, and Utilization Division, Office of Population and Reproductive Health, U.S. Agency for International Development

"Nanotechnology has the potential to generate enormous health benefits for the more than five billion people living in the developing world," said Dr. Peter A. Singer, senior scientist at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. Dr. Singer joined the Wilson Center's Andrew Maynard; the National Cancer Institute's Piotr Grodzinski; and moderator, Jeff Spieler, from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at an event on February 27, 2007, to discuss the use of nanotechnology to improve health in developing countries. Dr. Singer continued by discussing a number of possible advances in nanotechnology which could potentially have a huge impact on public health, such as tools for diagnosing and treating diseases in less-industrialized countries as well as being able to increase the availability of clean water.

Using the definition of Richard Smalley, the 1996 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry, Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Wilson Center, began the session by introducing the audience to the relatively new science of nanotechnology. Smalley was quoted as saying the field of nanotechnology is "the art and science of building stuff that does stuff on the nanometer scale." Maynard elaborated on this, noting that "a nanometer is roughly the same distance as 10 individual atoms lined up." Comparatively speaking, the size differential between a one meter child and a nanometer is roughly the same as the size differential between the moon and the head of a pin. Working with particles at this size is enabling scientists to "move into an area that they've never really been able to work with before and never really been able to take advantage of before." In practice, consumer nanotechnology products include better stain-resistant products, more effective sun-screens, and thermal insulating shoe insoles. Scientists, however, have only scratched the technological surface when it comes to health products.

Stressing the urgency of developing new technology for cancer in order to increase survival rates, Dr. Piotr Grodzinski, director of the Nanotechnology for Cancer Programs at the National Cancer Institute, described nanotechnology as an opportunity for early diagnosis and novel therapy as well as a means for prevention and quality of life enhancement among cancer patients. He provided examples of nanotechnology currently in use for cancer research such as simple, in vitro diagnostic tests and local medicinal delivery techniques that minimize dosages and side effects. Dr. Grodzinski compared the potential for inexpensive health nanotechnology in the developing world is comparable to MIT's "$100 Laptop" project—an attempt to provide cheap and simple laptop computers to those who would not otherwise be able to acquire such technology. However, the technology is not without its risks, and there is still quite a bit of work to be done in order to help different scientific fields work together in developing this technology as well as making sure that the products are safe.

Dr. Singer emphasized the role of nanotechnology in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), noting that each of the top ten nanotechnologies most likely to benefit developing countries could help in improving at least one of the MDGs. Improved energy storage, production and conversion would help to improve environmental sustainability. Better food processing and storage would help in eradicating extreme hunger. Additionally, he affirmed, "the Millennium Development Goals cannot be achieved without focused policy for science, technology, and innovation," stressing the role of strong political will in establishing and encouraging domestic innovation in the developing world. While some technology transfer from the industrialized nations could be used to jump-start programs in the developing world, these countries should not rely on such programs in the long-run. Instead, he argued that they need to establish sustainable nanotechnology programs within country to spur private sector development and focus efforts on niche areas.

Moderator Jeff Spieler, chief of research, technology & utilization in the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at USAID, brought the presentations to a close by stressing the challenge of making technologies commercially available in low-resource settings at a preferential price. He identified the importance of having a vibrant private sector as being a driving force for production and profit of new technologies. Agreeing with Dr. Singer's call for domestic innovation, he noted that production in the developing world would streamline the process of making the products available to the developing world. However, he emphasized the need to take into consideration the realities of the health systems, factories and environment of the places where the products will be applied when testing products for safety, effectiveness and utility.

The panelists acknowledged the potential for safety issues and complex patent regulations. During the discussion period, they further emphasized the importance of domestic innovation in developing countries, scientific rigor, and the potential for nanotechnology to revolutionize the way people live in both the developed and developing world.