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Foresight Update 47

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Institute for Molecular Manufacturing Report

The portion of Update 47 that constitutes the IMM Report is on the IMM Web site: http://www.imm.org/.

"Nanomedicine: Volumetric Cellular Intrusiveness of Medical Nanorobots" by Robert A. Freitas Jr.


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Nanomedicine Briefs

NCI official envisions medical nanotechnology

The medical applications of nanotechnology will change the shape of medicine, said Dr. Carol Dahl, director of the Office of Technology and Industrial Relations at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, according to a report from United Press International (“Nanomedicine: The new frontier”, by K. Samson, 23 July 2001). Dahl spoke during a special briefing, titled “The Promise of Nanotechnology: The Coming Revolution in Medicine,” presented at the National Health Council on 23 July 2001.

Speaking to about 70 congressional aides, health agency officials and others, Dahl described future potential for the medical applications of nanotechnology, where tiny devices and products work inside the body to diagnose and treat a range of illnesses and diseases. “Imagine if we could manipulate each individual atom of an object,” Dahl said. “That’s the basic idea of nanotechnology and many scientists believe that we are only a few decades away from achieving it. There are already a number of micro devices in use, but we want to get smaller — much smaller.”

Also speaking at the forum was David LaVan, from the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT, who said the groundwork for nanotech medical devices already is being laid by research efforts at a number of institutions. He also envisioned a future where medicine will deliver “stealth” immunity against disease by providing accurate diagnostic media that will be interpreted by “nanomonitors” and treated by reservoirs of drugs built into the tiny devices.

An article on the Small Times website ("Nanotechnology enables medical discovery, health official tells congressional staffers", by J. Karoub, 24 July 2001) provides additional coverage, focusing on Dahl’s remarks on NCI programs and a collaboration with NASA to develop nanoscale sensors and biomonitors.

Other Briefs

An article by Robert A. Freitas Jr. (“Robots in the bloodstream: The promise of nanomedicine,”) appeared in the October-December 2001 issue of Pathways: The Novartis Journal, the in-house journal of Novartis, a major pharmaceuticals company. The article featured descriptions and pictures of respirocytes and microbivores, as reports on recent work on artificial biological nanomotors, nanotweezers, and dendrimers. Pathways has a circulation of 20,000 and is sent to health care professionals in 53 countries around the world, so publication of the article represents another small step into the mainstream for nanorobotic medicine.

A research team at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) led by M. Reza Ghadiri have developed antibiotic agents based on self-assembling cyclic peptide nanotubes that which stack inside the cell membranes of bacteria and poke holes in the membranes, killing the cells. They reported on their research in the 26 July 2001 issue of Nature. The team synthesized rings of amino acids, the building blocks of peptides, which stack up to form tubes in bacterial cell walls. These self-assembling peptide nanotubes cleared infections of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in mice, even when injected far from the site of infection. Early work in this research project won Ghadiri Foresight’s 1998 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology for Experimental Work.

A team of researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) have developed a complex, highly-specific anti-cancer agent which they call a ”molecular nanogenerator”. These nanogenerators consist of a single radioactive atom contained inside a molecular cage and attached to a monoclonal antibody that homes in on cancer cells, where it is carried inside. The complex then releases a small cascade of atomic fragments known as alpha particles on the inside of cancer cells. — and destroys them. The results of this work are published in the 16 November 2001 issue of Science.


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Nanotechnology Activity Accelerates Across the United States

National Nanotechnology Initiative

In August, the U.S. government launched two projects to review its nanotechnology research and development efforts. Two committees organized by the National Research Council (NRC), an independent advisory body under the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) serving the government, will conduct the reviews.

The first will be a year-long review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). Information on the project, including scope, committee membership, and committee meetings is available on the NAS web site. An interim report was issued in October. A final report is due in May 2002.

The interim report identifies several items it deems critical to the success of the NNI: program management, including interagency coordination and ways of measuring progress; a balanced research portfolio that includes long-term planning, short-term successes, high-risk projects, and “grand challenges”; research partnerships with local, state and international entities including academia and the private sector; investment in developing infrastructure, fostering interdisciplinary research, and looking beyond nanoscale research to the creation of macro-scale products using nanotechnology; training of future scientists and engineers and examining societal impacts. The report is available online (at http://www.nap.edu/books/NI000327/html).

The second review, for which little information is available, will involve officials from the U.S. Air Force and Defense Department, and will examine the role of micro- and nanotechnologies in the military and how they could improve weapons systems and capabilities. Additional coverage is available in an extensive article on the SmallTimes website (“U.S. studies its nanotech plan to make sure it’s on right path”, by Jeff Karoub, 22 August 2001).

U.S. Nanoscale Science & Engineering Centers

The six new national Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSECs) established by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in September 2001 (see Foresight Update #46) have begun establishing their presence on the web. For more information about the research programs at the centers, visit the websites:

Regional programs

In the wake of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, and the establishment of major nanotechnology programs in California, New York, Texas and other states, smaller-scale programs are also springing up in other states and regions of the country. Some items illustrating this trend:

According to a report in Business First, a Columbus-based business journal, Ohio University has received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to research nanotechnology (“OU gets grant for nanotechnology research”, by C. Hall, 2 July 2001).

Another item from the Atlanta Business Chronicle, ("It’s all about being small: State jumps into ‘nanoscience’ ", by J. Bryant, 29 June 2001) sums the trend up pretty well: “Sensing what has become a global competition to develop these products, the federal government and universities such as Georgia Tech have suddenly gotten serious about funding nanoscience.”

An article in the Philadelphia Business Journal (“$1.3M raised to aid area nanotechnology”, by J. George, 16 November 2001) reports a coalition of Philadelphia-area universities, economic development groups and businesses have raised $1.32 million to bolster efforts to turn the region into a nanotechnology hub. A portion of the money will be used to develop associate degree programs in nanotechnology at community colleges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

The coalition, led by the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Ben Franklin Technology Partners, has received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) under its “Partnerships for Innovation” program. That grant was augmented by a $300,000 matching grant from the state of Pennsylvania, $300,000 from Ben Franklin Technology Partners and $118,000 from five corporate partners. Last year, The Pennsylvania Technology Investment Authority awarded the coalition a three-year, $10.5 million grant for the creation of a Nanotechnology Institute that would link university researchers and businesses developing molecular-scale technologies.

An article in Mass High Tech on 23 July 2001 reports that Northeastern University in Boston has established a Nano Manufacturing Research Institute. The new institute will receive about $750,000 over four years to seed its research efforts, but will not have a dedicated faculty or laboratory facilities. The funds will allow the group to hire postdoctoral fellows and to attract students interested in nanotechnology. Fourteen Northeastern faculty members will take part in the nanotech institute. In addition, it will collaborate with researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, MIT, University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The director will be Ahmed Busnaina, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northeastern.

And according to a press release (27 November 2001), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $13.75 million to the MIT Media Laboratory to create a Center for Bits and Atoms to explore how the content of information relates to its physical representation, from atomic nuclei to global networks.

“The center will bring nanofabrication, chemistry and biology labs together with rapid mechanical prototyping, electronic instrumentation and high-bay assembly workspaces. This integrated suite of resources is being developed to enable its researchers to shape simultaneously the information in a system and its physical embodiment, from microscopic to macroscopic scales. The NSF funding will help support research, education and outreach programs, as well as technological infrastructure. ”

And:

“Among the challenges to be tackled will be developing ‘personal fabricators’ to bring the malleability that personal computers provide for the digital world into the physical world; providing bidirectional molecular interfaces between computers and living systems; and bringing advanced information technologies to bear on some of the most intractable problems in global development and security.”

Deep in the heart of Texas

The Texas Nanotechnology Initiative (TNI) is a consortium of industry, universities, government, and venture capitalists whose goal is to position Texas as the nanotechnology state by recruiting companies, researchers and grant money. It is a state-wide effort to bring nanotechnology companies, researchers, and funding together to create an environment conducive to the rapid commercialization of nanotechnology in Texas.

The TNI website features information about the partners in the coalition, notices of upcoming events, some pointers to news coverage, and an FAQ about the initiative and its mission. A major result of TNI activities has been funding of a nanotech center at the University of Texas-Dallas earlier this year. Zyvex founder and CEO Jim Von Ehr helped create the Nanotechnology Research Center there, and has been a leading figure in the establishment and activities of the TNI.

An article on the Small Times website (“NanoTexas: The Land of Big Oil is Now Boomtown for the Tiny”, by C. Stuart, 16 July 2001) provides a useful overview of nanotech-related activity in Texas. The article covers the various Texas institutions and private firms engaged in research and development, and describes some of their work. “We’re getting a significant mass if not a critical mass,” said Michael Cox, senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Major research centers in Texas include the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University in Houston, the Center for Nano- and Molecular Science and Technology at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as numerous commercial ventures led by Zyvex Corporation. In September, Rice was also named host institution for one of six newly-created Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSECs); the facility there is the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN).

Several other Texas universities are moving rapidly into the field, including the University of Houston, Texas Christian and Southern Methodist universities, and the University of Texas branches in Dallas, Arlington and San Antonio. Earlier this year, Zyvex founder and CEO Jim Von Ehr donated $2.5 million to the University of Texas at Dallas to create a Nanotechnology Research Center there (see Foresight Update #45).

Despite all this activity, an article from the Dallas Business Journal (“To boldly go... The race is on to capitalize on the potential of nanotechnology”, by Jeff Bounds, 7 September 2001) lamented the lack of adequate funding and other support for nanotechnology at Texas universities, and ponders whether the state is falling behind in the race to establish a nanotech industry base. The article looks at programs in California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, and ponders what is needed to keep nanotech talent and companies in Texas.

The Small Times article points out other problems beyond a lack of state research dollars. For example, efforts by the TNI, a group of largely north Texas-based academic and private-sector organizations, to reach out to nanotech-focused organizations in south and central Texas have sometimes met with skepticism, principally because the TNI membership is largely located in the north part of the state.

And while many private-sector companies and individuals in Texas have embraced nanotechnology, some entrepreneurs in the field have found themselves having to go outside the state to find funding for their businesses.

James Tour, Rice University chemistry professor and one of the most prominent names in nanotechnology, says he has considered moving his company, Molecular Electronics Corp., to another state to be closer to investors. Though he’s received a large amount of investment interest from the East and West coasts -- mostly from wealthy individuals -- Tour says potential Texas backers haven’t moved as quickly.

“As a co-founder of the company, I’ll make my money, regardless of whether it’s in the East Coast, Silicon Valley or elsewhere,” he says. “It would break my heart to see this slip by and have it leave Texas.”

Even Von Ehr, an avowed fan of Texas’ business-friendly climate, has been urged by supporters in other states to move Zyvex elsewhere.

“I’ve had a lot of people pushing me to move to California or open a branch in California,” he says. “I know the friction of doing business there, so I’ve resisted. On the other hand, we want to be in the forefront of companies, so we’ll be where we need to be to remain in the forefront.”

In October, Zyvex Corp. and a team of collaborators were awarded a $12.5 million grant from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as part of a $US 25 million cost-sharing program to develop micro- and nanoscale devices.

Along with university collaborators at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center for Automation Technologies in Troy, N.Y., the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of North Texas, Zyvex will develop prototypical microscale assemblers using microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, to assemble nanoscale components. The long-term goal is to develop even smaller nanoscale assembler systems. “Our ultimate goal is adaptable, affordable, molecularly precise manufacturing,’’ said Rocky Angelucci, Zyvex’s technical liaison and manager of the company’s NIST program.

More information on the NIST grant and development program is available in a Zyvex press release from 12 October 2001. An extensive article in Dallas-Ft. Worth TechBiz (“National grant may help speed up Zyvex’s plans”, by Pavan Lall, 22 October 2001) provides an in-depth look at the program.


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From Foresight Update 47, originally published 31 December 2001.



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