The American engineer Eric Drexler, who coined the term nanotechnology in the 1980s, is not afraid of ambitious thinking. In his 2013 book Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, Drexler imagines a 3D printer-like “factory in a box”, which could manipulate atoms precisely enough to manufacture almost anything.
We may still be far from realizing Drexler’s vision, but the field which he named is maturing quickly. Only a few years ago, nanotech was still caricatured as the preserve of crazy scientists. According to Aymeric Sallin, chief executive officer of venture capital firm NanoDimension, that has all changed and “it is now getting traction from large corporates and institutional investors. CEOs are moving from big, established companies to nanotech enterprises”.
Nanotech is everywhere – from the needle-less Nanopatch vaccine delivery system of Vaxxas, one of the World Economic Forum’s new crop of Technology Pioneers, to the work of the Forum’s Young Scientist community member Hele Savin on making solar panels more efficient by removing impurities in silicon. So how big is the nanotech industry?
The question makes no sense, says Sallin. “Nanotech is not an industry in itself, but an enabler across all industries. By manipulating individual atoms and molecules, you can access intermediary states of matter where nature’s physical properties have changed; this is unlocking commercial opportunities from health to manufacturing, energy to farming.”
In medicine, especially, the promise of nanotechnology has been apparent for years but is only now coming to fruition. CEO of venture capital firm Flagship Ventures, Noubar Afeyan, explains: “If we could cure diseases with human imagination alone, we’d be done by now. You can write things down, and design them, and they should work – but reality is always more complex. For example, original approaches to creating nanomedicine often underestimated the need for targeting, so they were interacting with all kinds of things in the body.”
Targeted cancer treatment
An example of targeting is the nanoparticles called Accurins, developed by BIND Therapeutics, which bind only to certain types of cells. They promise to revolutionise cancer treatment, in particular. At present, the only way to get tumour-killing drugs into cancer cells is to treat the patient’s whole body, which causes side effects as the drugs interact also with healthy cells. Packaging the drugs in Accurins means they bypass healthy cells and are delivered directly to the diseased cells, where the drugs are released at a pre-programmed rate.
As Afeyan, among the company’s backers, says: “This sounded like science fiction when it was developed at MIT seven or eight years ago. Now the technology is mature, and we are limited only by the time it takes to complete clinical trials. We are in phase II, and if all goes well, in about two or three years we could start to see these treatments becoming available.”
Selecta Biosciences – like BIND, one of last year’s crop of Technology Pioneers – uses nanotech to target immune cells rather than diseased cells. Selecta has designed nanoparticles which dampen the response of the immune system to specified triggers, inducing tolerance – an approach that could help treat allergies and autoimmune diseases. While these treatments are still in the preclinical phase, results from animal tests are promising.
Ending animal tests
Sallin, meanwhile, hopes that a newly launched start-up could make animal tests a thing of the past. Emulate was set up to commercialize research by Harvard’s Wyss Institute on creating “organs-on-chips” – translucent flexible polymers, about the size of a computer memory stick, which mimic the workings of human organs such as the lung, heart and intestine.
As Sallin explains, testing a new drug on human cells in a lab doesn’t replicate the stresses the molecule will be exposed to in a real body – from the blood flow, the immune system and so on. And even if a molecule copes with those stresses in the body of a mouse or a rat, it often fails to do so when eventually tested on people. Replicating a human body, by linking various organs on chips together, could make the process of testing new treatments – which currently takes years and costs millions of dollars – much quicker, cheaper and more reliable.
Sallin adds: “Further down the line, one could even imagine personalized chips made from patients’ own cell samples. You could test whether a particular drug will work on a particular individual before administering it to them, opening the door to highly customized treatments.”
The difficulties of making the leap from theory to the complexities of the real world are not limited to medicine. With nanotech applications in industry, the challenge is how to take what works in the lab and scale it up to be commercially viable.
Like a cake for 8,000 people
Nicole Grobert, Professor of Nanomaterials at the University of Oxford, likens laboratory work to baking a cake for eight people and commercial production to baking the same cake for 8,000: “It’s not as simple as buying a thousand times as many eggs and bags of flour and sugar. For a start, you’d need a vastly bigger cake tin, one that wouldn’t fit in your oven – so you’d need to build a much bigger oven. And you might find that the temperature in a bigger oven would be less uniform. It could be a lot harder to fine-tune the cooking process so your cake isn’t burnt on the outside and raw in the middle.”
An example: Joule Unlimited is working to produce biofuel from industry’s waste carbon dioxide, using solar power and genetically-modified photosynthetic bacteria as a catalyst. Its 1,200-acre demonstration plant in the New Mexico desert is already producing ethanol at about three-quarters of the theoretical maximum in the lab – around 25,000 tonnes per acre per year, which would make it cheaper than ethanol produced traditionally from sugarcane, biomass or corn. The same technique is also producing diesel in the lab, but there is further to go before this becomes viable at large scale.
As Afeyan, the company’s co-founder, says: “It’s a question of going through optimization and better process engineering steps, to try to scale up from the lab to commercial production.”
Sallin’s portfolio includes View Glass, which employs over 300 people in rural Mississippi making electrochromic glass. The glazing tints itself either automatically, following the position of the sun, or on demand using a smartphone app, making the building more comfortable in direct sunlight while saving money on air conditioning and blinds. As he says: “This is one example of how nanotech is disrupting entire market places and creating value in industries which have not seen any big new ideas for the last two or three decades.”
Often, fundamental breakthroughs can have applications in multiple, very different areas. Returning to BIND Therapeutics, Sallin – another of the company’s backers – points out that the nanoparticles which target diseased cells can be pre-programmed to release their disease-treating drugs at an optimal rate. What other uses might there be for a polymer with these properties? Sallin mentions irrigation: “There are lots of places in the world – such as North Africa – where there are fertile soils and theoretically enough water throughout the year to grow food, but not spread over the right timespan. When you have prolonged periods without rainfall, you need irrigation. The problem with irrigation, however, is that much of the water either evaporates or gravitates through the dirt and doesn’t benefit the crop.
“So suppose you can take this polymer which controls the release of a drug on a cancer cell, and use it to capture water, turn it into a gel and release it in a controlled way over extended periods. More and more land would become available for agriculture.”
The idea illustrates how nanotechnology seems to lend itself to conceiving of ambitious goals. But it also shows, in Afeyan’s words, how “nanotech has moved from being a curiosity to a capability, part of our arsenal of tools. And that’s a good thing”.
Author: Andrew Wright is a freelance writer working for the World Economic Forum
Image: Graduate Student Yein Nam stains rodent Parkinsonian brain sections in the Nanomedicine Lab at UCL’s School of Pharmacy in London May 2, 2013. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett