Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / July 15, 2020

A crossroads of disciplines: How nanotechnology is revolutionising medicine

Nanotechnology, making it possible to manipulate matter on a ‘nano’ scale, emerged in the early 1980s. More recently, nanotechnology has become the intersection at which several scientific disciplines converge.

Written by Lieve Van Woensel and Sara Suna Lipp

How nanotechnology is revolutionising medicineNanotechnology, making it possible to manipulate matter on a ‘nano’ scale, emerged in the early 1980s. More recently, nanotechnology has become the intersection at which several scientific disciplines converge. The convergence of physics with biology has led to many scientific discoveries and nanotechnology applications, transforming the future of biology, and providing new solutions for medicine and healthcare. These include nano-sized artificial motors, built using biological molecules; while nanomedicine targets cancer cells, delivers drugs and battles antibiotic resistance bacteria. The recent coronavirus crisis demonstrated nanotechnology applications’ importance to finding fast and innovative solutions, such as for the detection and identification of viruses.

The online STOA workshop ‘The big future of nanotechnology in medicine‘, proposed and chaired by Lina Gálvez Muñoz (S&D, Spain) and STOA Panel member, was held on 25 June 2020. The workshop highlighted recent developments in nanotechnology and nanomedicine and provided a view of consumer perception and ethics in the field, as well as responsible research and innovation. Lina Gálvez Muñoz introduced the event, emphasising that the discussion on nanotechnology is even more relevant in the light of the recent coronavirus crisis. She welcomed the expert speakers: Sonia Contera, Professor at the Oxford Physics Department and author of Nano Comes to Life; Laura M. Lechuga, Professor at ICN2 and head of the CONVAT project; Maurizio Salvi, Senior Policy Analyst in the Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) Unit, European Commission; and Roxanne Van Giesen, Senior researcher in consumer research at CentERdata.


Keynote speaker Sonia Contera provided a historical perspective of developments in nanotechnology. She mentioned that, based on consumer and public responses, nanotechnology was one of the first technological sectors in the EU with a formal agenda for ethics and responsible innovation, pioneering this approach in the world. She explained that a new kind of nanotechnology is bringing together synthetic biology with computer sciences and physics, thus embracing biological complexity to create novel materials, drugs and future applications. In this context, she reviewed recent developments such as new antibacterials, cancer immunotherapies and vaccines, 3D-printed organs or organs-on-a-chip. Sonia Contera concluded by stating that the approach of science and technology is changing by adapting to the complexity of nature and highlighted the importance of diversity and multidisciplinarity in science to face the challenges of the 21st century.

The coronavirus crisis has shown that novel diagnostic tools for rapid, sensitive and specific testing and population screening are essential to tackling infectious outbreaks. Laura M. Lechuga, head of the CONVAT project (one of the first projects funded by the Horizon 2020 European Union framework programme to fight Covid‑19), explained that there are currently three different Covid‑19 diagnostic strategies. These are: (i) detection of the virus RNA genetic material by nucleic acid tests; (ii) detection of the intact virus by antigen detection tests; and (iii) detection of antibodies by serological tests. She described the limitations of each test; and highlighted the aim of the CONVAT project: to create point-of-care nanobiosensors that can provide fast, sensitive, massive and quantitative diagnostics. She concluded that the distinctive feature of nanophotonic biosensors, where light interacts with viral particles to produce a specific and quantitative signal, ranks them as a highly competitive technology. These tools will also make it possible to monitor animal reservoirs for the detection of new emerging viruses.


Maurizio Salvi, argued that nanotechnology is one of the most successful examples of ethical, legal and societal issues being strongly reflected in the innovation strategy in the field. He explained that, from the very beginning, nanomedicine has addressed issues such as safety, informed consent, non-discrimination in terms of accessibility, and the precautionary principle from an ethical viewpoint. He pointed out that different nanomedicine applications are evaluated separately. Governance of the nanotechnology sector at the European level shows an effort to embed the complexity of implications into a global strategy, however no unique solution addresses these ethical, legal or societal issues, and debates on national and local level are highly important.

Consumer perception significantly influences the development of technologies, as society can either accept or reject a new technology, and nanotechnology is no exception. Roxanne Van Giesen, a senior researcher on consumer perception, explained that such opinions are based on affect or cognition. She noted that applications more closely linked to the body, such as food or water, are more likely to raise societal concern, and rely more on emotions than knowledge. Interestingly, however, her data on nanomedicine showed similar acceptance levels as for conventional medicine. This underlined the fact that people more readily accept technologies when they are used in health/life-saving applications. The acceptance and success of this technology, she concluded, greatly depends on communication and increasing factual knowledge by building on existing knowledge of the target audience.


In the subsequent discussion, the importance of diversity and interdisciplinarity in science emerged as a key message. Public trust and consumer perception can only be influenced in a positive way if discussions are inclusive. Furthermore, the success of a nanotechnology application depends on the full synergy of different disciplines from the beginning of research and development to the end product.

In her concluding remarks, Petra De Sutter (Greens/EFA, Belgium) and STOA Panel member underlined the many ethical and policy-making challenges linked to nanotechnology. She pointed out that, as with artificial intelligence, policy-making in the nanotechnology field should follow a risk-based approach dependent on applications. She highlighted the importance of regulatory frameworks that are evidence-based and promote public trust. Petra De Sutter concluded the workshop by pointing out that the legislative sector also needs to move from reductionism to acknowledging complexity and interdisciplinarity in order to address complex technologies such as nanotechnology.

The full recording of the meeting is available here.


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