Is nanotechnology safe?

U.S. lawmakers address need for more risk research, oversight

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WASHINGTON—On the heels of OmegaGenesis' announcement that it will license nanomaterials developed by the Mayo Clinic to probe their use in angiogenesis applications, the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee on Jan. 15 introduced legislation that highlights the growing attention on Capitol Hill for the need to strengthen federal efforts to learn more about the potential environmental, health and safety risks posed by engineered nanomaterials.

Nanotechnology, the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers, is hailed by the life sciences industry as an emerging technology that could usher in the next Industrial Revolution and is the focus of an annual $1.5 billion federal research investment.

The new bill, H.R. 554, is almost identical to legislation the House passed last year with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Senate was expected to mark up similar legislation, but lawmakers ran out of time during the session. The Senate is expected to propose its own nanotechnology bill soon.

Oostur Raza, CEO of Omega-Genesis, which recently licensed nanotechnology developed by the Mayo Clinic, criticized the original proposal as "a very basic attempt" to regulate the use of nanotechnology.

"To the best of my knowledge, products based on nanotechnology are still in development mode, and benefits and risks are under review by developers," Raza says. "Regulation must be flexible and evolve to encourage nanotechnologies which are still in research and development mode. In OmegaGenesis' case, any nano-based drug will go through the FDA process just like any other drug, so we are already regulated to assure safety of consumers. The only impact of new regulation could be in the manufacturing of nanomaterials in small quantities in research labs. Any regulation needs to handle use in different fields separately."

Dr. David Sarphie, CEO of Bio Nano Consulting Ltd., a not-for-profit specialist consultancy owned jointly by University College London and Imperial College London, contends nanotechnology is an extremely useful tool in developing new products. Areas such as drug formulation into nanoparticles and miniaturization of diagnostics are improving product characteristics such as lowering toxicity and providing direct real-time feedback of patient status to healthcare providers, Sarphie says.

"Obviously, we want to use these tools in a safe and responsible way, and there is a lot of research being carried out into the safety, health and environmental impact of this technology," Sarphie says. "A concern though is that we don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water and stop, or delay, the development of some life-saving products because we don't know absolutely everything about the technology. It's new science, and like all new technologies, there are still questions to be answered." DDN

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