Posted: Feb 16, 2006

The nanotechnology-biology interface: exploring models for oversight

(Nanowerk News) The Center for Science, Technology & Public Policy at the Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota hosted a workshop on September 15, 2005 to explore and evaluate models for the oversight of nanotechnology, with a focus on nanoparticles that are used in or derived from biological systems. Over 160 people attended the workshop, including individuals from industry, academe, national organizations, and federal, state and local government. A report summarizing the workshop is now available. It includes a summary of the workshop, as well as conclusions and recommendations about policies for moving forward. Highlighted conclusions are listed below:
New strategies in toxicology are needed to address the fact that nanomaterials have unique properties. Risk assessment paradigms may be the same, but the special properties of nanomaterials suggest that data and information needs for ensuring safety will be different.
• Governance frameworks for products of other technologies should be analyzed in order to learn from their lessons and assess their relevance to nanoproducts.
• Amending or developing new regulations and statutes is unlikely in the short, and possibly long-term; therefore, creative ways to ensure that nanotechnology is used responsibly are needed. Voluntary programs and industry standards and guidelines can provide a bridge for ensuring health and environmental safety, but they should not be considered a permanent fix, as they will not ultimately foster public confidence.
• Conversations about nanotechnology should not be confined to science and safety. There are other important issues in nanotechnology governance, such as the structure of industry, equity of technology deployment, life-cycle of products, consumer rights, appropriate limits of technology, and power and control over the technology.
• Better social institutions are needed for diplomacy; people to relate to each other; and discussing social, ethical and political issues surrounding the nano-bio interface.
• Implications research should be distinguished, as much as possible, from applications research and given considerably more attention and funding.
• To increase transparency, basic information on nature and toxicity of nanomaterials should be in the public record before entering the market.
Nanotechnology has recently been an investment priority for the U.S. and other national governments. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has provided over $1 billion to nanotechnology research since 2001. The interface between nanoscale technology and biology (nano-bio) is a rapidly growing area. There are emerging concerns about the health and environmental safety of nanoparticles applied to or derived from biological systems, as well as other challenges to society posed by the confluence of nanotechnology and biotechnology. In a day-long public workshop, diverse national and international experts, such as scientists, industry and government representatives, regulators, lawyers, bioethicists, and social scientists shared their perspectives and work on nanotechnology. This group discussed the following questions:
• Is there or will there be a mis-match between the ability to generate nanoparticles and the ability to detect or determine the effects of these particles? Should the two be linked in any regulations developed with respect to nanoparticle use?
• Are there procedures developed for other technologies (example airplane design, genetically modified organisms) that could or should be adopted or adapted to assure the safety of nanoparticles and materials developed from them? What is the appropriate balance between government regulation and investigator or industry voluntary guidelines?
• What is the relationship between claims (from modest to extravagant) made for the potential of nanotechnology and the challenge of building public confidence in the safety of the new technology? What is the appropriate strategy for balancing these two factors to preserve momentum in the development of the technology?
Sessions included: 1) an overview of applications of nanotechnology, as it is related to biology and the use of nanoscale biomolecules, 2) presentations on different regulatory or non-regulatory governance systems in the U.S. and elsewhere and their applicability to and appropriateness for the nanotechnology sector, 3) the views of a variety of experts and stakeholders on the societal interface of nanotechnology and an appropriate balance between the progress of the technology and ensuring safety, and 4) the long-term future of nanotechnology and how governance approaches can and should take into account far-future or unforeseen applications of nanotechnology.
The full report can be downloaded here (PDF download 1.1 MB).
Source: University of Minnesota