Wired didn’t make me wait very long to find an illustration of a point I made last week in Washington.
Big Concern for Very Small Things (Get it? The concerns are “big,” yet the technology is “small.”) mentions the Nanodesu bowling ball as “one of the first consumer products that uses nanoparticles called fullerenes — aka buckyballs. …” (These beauties come come in regular and “1500“).
The reporter rolls out the balls, however, as merely a transitional vehicle to get to where he really wanted to go: From apples to oranges to, yes, fish. Our poor, brain-damaged bass who likely will never see retirement as long as Google News exists.
This seems like a good opportunity for a transition of my own to a conversation I had last week with Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). It’s going to be his job to handle “public outreach” for the U.S. government’s nanotech program. In this conversation, I present a scenario similar to the one Wired so nicely illustrated for me, only I used the example of buckyballs as drug-delivery device rather than as angel of 10-pin death.
Here’s a peak into the middle of our hour-long conversation (these are some pretty raw notes, so forgive the typos):
Howard Lovy: There’s a difference between chemicals that are bad for you in any size, are toxic whether they’re nanometer-size or not …
Clayton Teague: Yes, arsenic — it doesn’t matter whether it’s 1 micrometer or a tenth of a nanometer. It’s bad for you.
HL: But what’s not understood is the effect of some of these new engineered nanoparticles and what happens when it’s ingested or breathed in, or what happens when it passes through the blood-brain barrier. That’s what’s not understood.
Teague: Let me just make one other point there. There’s also a difference between, as you say, exhaust nanoparticles, or abrasive nanoparticles and some of the new engineered nanoparticles. There, if you took even nanometer-scale asbestos. It may have some dimensions that are nanoscale, but it’s very highly uncontroled sizes, the surface chemistry is different, the aspect ratios are different.
If I go to a buckyball. Every one of those buckyballs is nearly identical. They may conglomerate and form a different shape when they come together, but their surface chemistry and they way they look is like a highly uniform collection. They’re very monodispersed. They’re very highly uniform in character, in dimension, chemical surface property and things like that. So, that’s why, in some instances they’re functioning completely different, but it also may mean that their interaction with the body might be very different because they have this very nice, different surface chemistry and are very monodispersed in size. So, when we say they may be different in the body, they may be different in the body.
HL: Well, that’s what’s confusing, then, because scientists want to use the buckyball for a drug-delivery device because of it’s special properties. At the same there are FDA trials involving buckyballs there are toxicity studies involving buckyballs.
Teague: Exactly. They’re all going on.
HL: So, to the general public first being introduced to buckyballs, which do they pay attention to? Are they wonderful drug-delivery devices or are they potentially toxic, or both?
Teague: That’s right. They could be. But until we have data, we have really honest-to-goodness data, we have no basis for a decision. As you were talking about earlier, people can get very afraid, but the FDA is not going to approve those as a drug-delivery device until their data can substantiate that they are not going to be harmful to the body.
HL: Being a former general-interest journalist, here’s how I can see things happening: The FDA comes out with something about buckyballs as a drug-delivery device. A reporter on the science desk at the Podunk Journal is asked to do a story on it. He does a LexisNexis or Google search, sees that story about the buckyballs and fish, and ties the two together. Then you’ve got another public relations problem.
Teague: I think that’s a very realistic scenario. Somehow it has to be communicated to people that fish and mammals don’t react in the same way. That’s one thing. How you get those kinds of things across in a valid way without sounding like we’re trying to whitewash something is (pause). I think you have to be just as factual as you can (another pause). I don’t know how else to deal with it, other than trying to be factual as you can and saying fish and mammals are different, you breathing something is different from you swallowing something as the fish does.
HL: I don’t envy your job. These are the issues you’re going to be dealing with.
More commentary on Howard Lovy’s NanoBot.