Posted: December 1, 2006

The impact of medical nanotechnology on marginalized communities

(Nanowerk News) The ETC Group has published a report titled "Medical applications of Nano-scale technologies: What Impact on Marginalized communities?".
Medical applications of nano-scale technologies have the potential to revolutionize healthcare by delivering powerful tools for diagnosing and treating disease at the molecular level. But the current zeal for nano-enabled medicines could divert scarce medical R&D funds away from essential health services and direct resources away from non-medical aspects of community health and wellbeing. Although nanomedicine is being touted as a solution to pressing health needs in the global South, it is being driven from the North and is designed primarily for wealthy markets. Using nano-scale technologies, the pharmaceutical industry’s ultimate goal is to make every person a patient and every patient a paying customer by “medicating” social ills with human performance enhancement (HyPE) drugs and devices. Nanoenabled HyPEs could usher in an era of two-tiered humans – Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens 2.0.
As of mid-2006, 130 nanotech-based drugs and delivery systems and 125 devices or diagnostic tests are in preclinical, clinical or commercial development. The combined market for nanoenabled medicine (drug delivery, therapeutics and diagnostics) will jump from just over $1 billion in 2005 to almost $10 billion in 2010 and the US National Science Foundation predicts that nanotechnology will produce half of the pharmaceutical industry product line by 2015. Nanomedicine will help big pharma extend its exclusive monopoly patents on existing drug compounds and on older, under-performing drugs. Analysts suggest that nanotech-enabled medicine will increase profitability and discourage competition.
Nanomedicine may have its greatest impact in the realm of “human performance enhancement” (HyPE). Nanomedicine in combination with other new technologies will make it theoretically possible to alter the structure, function and capabilities of human bodies and brains. In the near future, nano-enabled HyPE technologies will erase distinctions between “therapy” and “enhancement” and could change, quite literally, the definition of what it means to be healthy or human.
Reality check
Ironically, crucial questions remain about the health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials that are being used to develop nanomedicines. The nascent field of “nanotoxicology” is awash with uncertainty. Despite the fact that nano-scale products have already been commercialized (including nanomedicines), no government in the world has developed regulations that address basic nanoscale safety issues.
Can OECD donors who have failed to deliver promised mosquito netting to malariastricken countries and who have managed to provide only one condom per adult male per annum to combat HIV/AIDS in the global South really claim that hefty investment in new nanomedicines will pay off for poor countries? Governments urgently need broad, participatory societal and scientific, ethical, cultural, socioeconomic and environmental risk assessment to evaluate nanomedicine. Policies must be guided by the concerns of civil society and social movements, including disability rights and women’s organizations. To keep pace with technological change, an intergovernmental framework is needed to monitor and assess the introduction of new technologies. At its next meeting in 2007, the World Health Assembly should undertake a full analysis of nanomedicine within this wider social health context.
Source: ETC Group