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Nanotechnology and Development

nanomdg.jpgA new report, published in the latest edition of PLoS Medicine, lays out precisely how emerging nanotechnologies can help to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

63 specialists around the world were asked by the Canadian Joint Centre for Bioethics to identify the ways in which nanotechnologies could be used in the developing world. The group ranked the potential of different applications, and linked them to five key MDG categories.

We posed the following open-ended question: “Which do you think are the nanotechnologies most likely to benefit developing countries in the areas of water, agriculture, nutrition, health, energy, and the environment in the next 10 years?” These areas were identified in the 2002 UN Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development. We asked the panelists to answer this question using the following criteria derived from our previous Top Ten Biotechnologies study.

Impact. How much difference will the technology make in improving water, agriculture, nutrition, health, energy, and the environment in developing countries?
Burden. Will it address the most pressing needs?
Appropriateness. Will it be affordable, robust, and adjustable to settings in developing countries, and will it be socially, culturally, and politically acceptable?
Feasibility. Can it realistically be developed and deployed in a time frame of ten years?
Knowledge gap. Does the technology advance quality of life by creating new knowledge?
Indirect benefits. Does it address issues such as capacity building and income generation that have indirect, positive effects on developing countries?

The resulting list covers issues familiar to WorldChanging readers.

Energy production and storage topped the list, with agricultural productivity close behind. Other issues amenable to nanotechnological interventions include water treatment, disease diagnosis and construction. The paper includes a graphic outlining specific technologies for each category, most of which are currently in development, in testing, or just about ready for market. It's clear that the people assembling this document and research are paying close attention to developments in the field.

The authors of the paper recommend the implementation of a new initiative, Addressing Global Challenges Using Nanotechnology, modeled on the work of the Global Challenges in Global Health, started last year by the Foundation of the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But they aren't expecting the developed world to be the sole source of nanotechnology. The article makes a point of identifying current nanotechnology programs in the developing world:

Several developing countries have launched nanotechnology initiatives in order to strengthen their capacity and sustain economic growth. India's Department of Science and Technology will invest $20 million over the next five years (2004–2009) for their Nanomaterials Science and Technology Initiative. Panacea Biotec (New Delhi, India) is conducting novel drug delivery research using mucoadhesive nanoparticles, and Dabur Research Foundation (Ghaziabad, India) is participating in Phase-1 clinical trials of nanoparticle delivery of the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel. The number of nanotechnology patent applications from China ranks third in the world behind the United States and Japan. In Brazil, the projected budget for nanoscience during the 2004–2007 period is about $25 million, and three institutes, four networks, and approximately 300 scientists are working in nanotechnology. The South African Nanotechnology Initiative is a national network of academic researchers involved in areas such as nanophase catalysts, nanofiltration, nanowires, nanotubes, and quantum dots. Other developing countries, such as Thailand, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico, are also pursuing nanotechnology.

The authors of the piece are clear that nanotechnology is not a silver bullet to solve all development problems. It is, however, a key technology research direction world-wide, with enormous implications for changing how we live and work. As Dale Carrico wrote recently, we can't expect the technologies of "the future" to be used to make a difference in people's lives unless we start working now to make it happen. This article -- which seems to be getting a good bit of coverage -- is a big step in that direction, as it does more than simply argue that nanotechnology could be a good thing for the developing world, someday. It spells out how nanotechnology can be applied, the specific types of developments which will be of greatest use, and exactly what kind of difference they can make.

New technologies won't improve the lives of the billions in poverty unless we change our behavior -- but when we do change our behavior, new technologies will help to bring about the desired results faster, more easily and more completely.


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Comments (1)

Driven by development and competitive pressures, possessing rapidly increasing resources of brainpower - the successful leapfroggers are remarkable to watch. And factors like lower educated labor costs mean that R&D expenditure figures for developing nations understate the true state of affairs.

A previous report by the same team along similar lines, "Top 10 Biotechnologies for Improving Health in Developing Countries", summarizes how biotechnologies could make a difference:

* Simple hand-held testing devices using molecular-based diagnostics to conduct rapid, low-cost checks for a variety of infectious diseases, such as HIV and malaria. Researchers have made breakthroughs already with these technologies in Latin America in the diagnosis of leishmaniasis and dengue fever;
* Genetically-engineered vaccines that are cheaper, safer and more effective than current vaccines, and which hold new promise in fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. For example: using DNA technology to design an AIDS vaccine candidate specifically for Africa and edible vaccines -- incorporated into potatoes and other vegetables and fruits to protect against hepatitis B, cholera, measles, and other ailments;
* Alternatives to needle injections (e.g. inhalable drugs, powdered vaccines) that could make vaccine and drug delivery safer, easier to administer and potentially less expensive;
* Genetically modified bacteria and plants that can clean up contaminated air, water and soil;
* Vaccines and vaginal microbicides to allow women to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections;
* Computer-based tools to mine data on human and nonhuman gene sequences for clues on preventing and treating infectious and non-communicable diseases;
* Genetically modified staple foods such as rice, potatoes, corn and cassava with enhanced nutritional value.

It then goes on to suggest some capacity-building investments that could improve the ability of developing nations to benefit from emerging biotechnologies:

* Encouraging international research into the application of biotechnology to health problems in the developing world by fostering collaborations across borders that permit the sharing of human and financial resources.
* Identifying the ingredients of a flourishing biotechnology industry in the developing world by studying countries that have had some success in the field.
* Ensuring that scientists, policy-makers and others in the developing world are familiar with the ethical, legal, social and policy implications of biotechnology and how other countries are taking advantage of its benefits while minimizing its risks.
* Considering creation of an international commission to govern the application of biotechnology and promoting widespread public consultation to ensure that biotechnology research is consistent with local values and meets the needs of as many people as possible.
* Establishing innovative financing structures such as "ethical" investment funds and financial incentives from governments to fund promising global health applications of biotechnology.

This report was the basis for the "Genomics and Global Health" report in the UN Millennium Project.


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