The dichotomy that is nanotech was made manifest in two separate reports of research findings this week.
BIND Biosciences, a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is reported to be beginning clinical trials on the use of a nanoparticle to deliver chemotherapy drugs through the body directly targeting tumors.
It was also reported in Nature Nanotechnology that researchers at the Bristol Implant Research Centre, UK have determined that high doses of nanoparticles can affect the DNA molecules on the other side of a cellular barrier without actually crossing the barrier. 20/20 Science has a good examination of the research and its impact.
But if ever there were an example of how the risks of nanoparticles need to be balanced against their benefits, this would be it. Improved cancer treatments are a much different factor than improved insulation materials for heating pipes as we had with asbestos.
It is not yet definitively clear that the nanoparticles are a threat or a benefit in these two instances. But we seem to be coming to the crossroads at which nanotech will pose some risks and promise some great benefits, for this reason we will need to find regulations that minimize one while maximizing the other.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.