Wednesday, July 6, 2005

On Stem Cells and NANO - Opportunites or not???



...On the other hand, we have the convergence of nanotechnology and biotechnology and implications for the ongoing debate in American over stem cells and embryos. While this might appear a negative variable in the calculus to communicate nanoscience and nanotechnology to the public, it does not need to be so.

America has moved to the right. “One of the two main political developments in the past ten years has been the rise of the Christian Right and bitter partisanship-and the two are connected.” John Danforth made this observation and events including efforts by Congress to intervene to save the life of a brain-damaged woman from Florida and to end the filibuster on judicial appointments bear it out. There remains support on some level for a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and to require parental notification for minors seeking abortion, even in case of incestuous rape. What has happened? The Economist addressed two phenomena: the make-up of Protestant America and the realignment of religious America’s politics. Even though the Right’s position on stem-cell research is unpopular, the ban on federal government funding of new embryonic lines remains in force.

There have been a handful of articles examining relationships between nanoscience and nanotechnology and stem cell research. For example, the Fourth Asian-Harvard Joint International Symposium on Nanotechnology in Biology and Medicine on June 15 and 16, 2004, entertained “two of the most promising and controversial areas of research, nanotechnology and stem cells.” In addition, the two terms have begun to find themselves associated. According to neurologist John Kessler from Northwestern, “Nanotechnology might show people once and for all that you really can help regenerate organs with stem-cell biology and help people walk again, help people after heart attacks, help people after strokes.”

There has been some scientific research as well. At Johns Hopkins, they are trying to use magnetic nanoparticles to improve MRI to figure out exactly where to inject the stem cells. In terms of research specifically associated with producing stem cells, Sam Stupp at Northwestern is working with self-assembling three-dimensional biodegradable scaffolds of nanofibers and Douglas Kniss from Ohio State is developing nanofibrous scaffold for stem cells.

Much of America is wary of opening new embryonic lines of stem cells because that will require experimenting on embryos that are unused in IVF procedures. Setting aside the observation these cells are destroyed when unused, there has been a flurry of research in unique ways to get around the moral and ethical concerns. For example, Advance Cell Technology used single blastomeres to cultivate embryonic stem cells. The single cells once removed do not compromise the viability of the embryo. Harvard researchers are attempting to reprogram skin cell genes to return them to an embryonic state. Work at the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago remove the DNA from a stem cell and fuse it with a human skin cell. We have yet to see whether any of these approaches will avoid the ire of the movement from the right.

Conflating nano and stem cell research might be problematic for many reasons not the least of which is the issue of "playing God." A recent British study noted some concern among participants about nanoscience “playing God.” In January of 2004, a report, Nanotechnology: Views of the General Public, was prepared for the Royal Science and Royal Academy of Engineering Nanotechnology Working Group by the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB). The report is composed of “two elements and qualitative strand, consisting of two evening workshops (mini-citizen juries), and a quantitative strand, for which questions were placed on BMRB’s face-to-face omnibus survey (with a representative sample of 1005 adults aged 15 or over in Great Britain) from January 8-14, 2004.” In general it reported “29% of respondents from both the workshops and the survey said they were aware of the term “nanotechnology” and “68 percent… of those who were able to give a definition … felt it would improve life …. Only 4 percent thought it would make things worse…. 13 percent of the workshop respondents said that nanotechnology would make things better or worse depended on how it was used.” There was a recurrent comment from participants in the workshops: "playing God" was a phrase that was used in a negative sense, and one which respondents spontaneously reach for to disparage certain technology developments. However, they often found it to be difficult to be more specific about their use of the phrase.” Such views are likely to be even more prevalent in America than Britain. While this complaint did not seem to find its legs when it comes to most biotechnology, it has had an impact on some stem cell research.

Nanotechnology makes biotechnology more efficient, it acts as an enabling technology with faster computers and smaller instruments. For example, family planning and birth control techniques will become less intrusive. Some nanotechnologists have begun to hype nanotech as a means for augmenting human intelligence, brain enhancements, and prolonging human life. These claims become warrants for the subsequent claim: they are “playing God.”

Unfortunately, some of the reportage on the linkage between nanotech and stem cell research hasn’t emphasized the distinction between embryonic and adult stem cell lines that might be advantaged from nanotechnology research. Failures to make such a distinction could impact the sense of bipartisanship that led to the overwhelming support of the National Nanotechnology Initiative and the 20th Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. For example, Dyer and Choi merely discuss nanotechnology research and stem cell research without addressing any distinction whatsoever.

Nonetheless, researchers at Stanford are using "arrays of nano-reservoirs on a chip to stimulate desired adult stem cell behavior.” Arrowhead Research Corp licensed the uncompleted nanotech stem cell device from Stanford which “controls the behavior of adult stem cells,” Arrowhead will be funding further research in exchange for the exclusive license and “believes nanotechnology is the key to unleashing the potential of stem cells.” At Israel’s Tel Aviv University researchers are attempting to develop a chip which will automatically sort adult stem cells out of blood marrow. They then would attempt to grow tissue outside of the body and then transplant it into the patient to reverse spinal cord damage, or repair damaged hearts. Dafna Menayahu claims “using the adult type helps us bypass the ethical issues associated with embryonic stem cells.

Ignoring for a moment claims that adult stem cells may not yield adequate research findings; there is a unique opportunity to position nanotechnology as a tactic to manage our way through some difficult ethical questions. What if nanotechnology allowed us to avoid destroying human embryos in stem cell research by making adult cell lines more attractive to political wonks? This approach might allow us to step away from technological primitivism, promote a new and powerful technology, and advance our understanding of stem cells and their utility in curing human diseases.


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