How society deals with new technology, what ethical and societal consequences nanotechnology brings in its wake – these are questions which occupy the mind of Alfred Nordmann, the head of the «nanobüro» at the Technical University of Darmstadt. A philosopher, Nordmann warns against adopting a «speculative» or «futuristic» ethical model which looks far ahead and attempts to take account of every possible (and impossible) future application. “Instead of trying to predict all the imaginable uses of nanotechnology and estimate their effects, we should really be worrying about questions which influence research into nanotechnology today”, he maintains.
In the field of medicinal diagnostics, for example, already today the greatest fears are concentrated around the question of how we should approach the new diagnostic tests, expected to be available in the future, for currently incurable diseases. In Nordmann’s opinion, “…perhaps we should spend more time worrying about how a personalized system of medical care – a trend which is already visible today – will change the relationship between doctors and patients.”
Nanoparticles in the battle against cancer
That diagnostic processes are already markedly better thanks to nanotechnology is shown, for instance, by a blood test for colonic cancer which Gerd Grenner, CTO of Roche Diagnostics, presented at the conference. In this method the blood sample is tested for six different proteins, which are indicative of the disease, in so-called microarray chips. By making use of nanoparticles, which, depending on their size, fluoresce in different colors, the six tumor markers can be simultaneously identified. This increases the sensitivity of the tests – that is the fraction of subjects correctly identified as having the disease – from about thirty per cent using a single protein to seventy per cent.
Nanotechnology is also promising in terms of therapeutic applications. Andreas Jordan, with his company MagForce Nanotechnologies AG, has for example developed a novel cancer treatment which allows doctors to inject magnetic nanoparticles directly and precisely into tumors with the help of a three dimensional imaging technique. When an oscillating magnetic field is applied, the nanoparticles (and the tumor containing them) heat up to up to 75 degrees Celsius due to magnetic coupling effects. This heat destroys the tumor, while at the same time the surrounding healthy tissue is hardly damaged.
The idea of using heat to destroy tumors has been around for a long time, according to Jordan. However, until now it has never been possible to heat the tumor selectively without affecting the surrounding tissue. “This breakthrough will be made possible thanks to nanotechnology”, says Jordan with conviction. The results of clinical studies on patients suffering from a glioblastoma – a particularly malignant brain tumor – have been encouraging. According to Jordan the average life expectancy of a patient about a year after diagnosis was “significantly increased” and detailed results are expected to be published by the end of the year.