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Posted by plosmedicine on 30 Mar 2009 at 23:43 GMT

Author: Monappa B. hegdebm
Position: Retd. Vice Chancellor, Cardiology
Institution: Manipal, India
Submitted Date: June 03, 2005
Published Date: June 14, 2005
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

This article is a good attempt to acquaint the medical profession of this new field, nano-science, that might soon change the way we practise modern medicine. The business community would want us to believe that nanotechnology would solve all our problems from energy crisis to cancer management. Richard Smalley, a Nobel Laureate chemist, had this to say in concluding the now famous Drexler-Smalley debate of the 1990s. You and people around you have scared our children. I don't expect you to stop, but I hope others in the chemical community will join with me in turning on the light, and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams. To which Drexler, the Chairman of the Foresight Institute, responds by quoting Smalley on an earlier occasion. Smalley is reported to have said that if a scientist says that something is possible, he/she is probably underestimating the time it will take to fructify; but if a scientist says that something is not possible, he/she is wrong. It is no wonder that most people in the medical field know very little about nano-science.

Nanotechnology, a method primarily of molecular manufacturing, for the creation of tools, materials and machines that might eventually enable us to snap together the fundamental building blocks of Nature easily, inexpensively, and in most of the ways permitted by the Laws of Physics. One of the brilliant scientists, who is now the Evan Pugh Professor of Solid State and Emeritus Professor at the Pennsylvania State University, Rustom Roy, is the real pioneering father of nanotechnology. Even at his age (80+) he has the enthusiasm of youth and continues to do research with the same passion.

Given the present gross exaggerations associated with the halo-word nano, I must confess that it was Rustom Roy in the early 50s, working as a chemist and now for well over sixty years, has worked with ions, atoms or molecules-all genuinely nano. By 1950 he had designed the sol-gel process, still the most widely used route to produce, relatively effortlessly, nanoparticles of myriad compositions. Using this route he and his team started to make genuine nanocomposites by the late eighties. By 1991, long before anyone else in the field, he convened a Symposium on Nanoscience and Technology at the Materials Research Society.

The idea caught on; the salability of a euphonious slightly mysterious term became caught up in the corridors of Science Funding and the rest is (bad) history he says with nostalgia. To-day nanotechnology is a PR bonanza for a subset of science. It is focus of attention on nano, the very small, which had NEVER been neglected by chemists or biologists. Regrettably it causes the neglect of many other fields closer to societys needs health of the masses, the environment, employment etc - which are at the Giga end of the spectrum. opines Rustom Roy in one of his pensive moods.

In matters of inorganic chemistry and social activism Rustom was probably Linus Pauling's closest disciple. By chance he also worked with both Ivan Illich (of Medical Nemesis fame) and Norman Cousins, and was well schooled in the failures of conventional high-tech medicine.

Those fortuitous connections are what started Rustom Roy down the path of a scientific appraisal of the field. Moreover as an experimental scientist - Penn State's Materials Research Laboratory, which he founded was ranked #1 in the world, by ISI - strictly on the strength of its Faraday like empirical experiment-based advances Rustom Roy immediately grasped the value of masses of empirical data contained in long traditions of healing and went into scientifically validating them. And, most important of all, Rustom had his continuous, very successful research in the hard sciences not dependent on the medical establishment he was soon criticizing.

Rustom Roy, having been convinced of the futility of pursuing nanotechnology to cure all our ills, put together an unusual seminar on WHOLE PERSON HEALING (other end of nano-world) during the week ending 14th through 17th of April 2005 in Washington DC which was a run away success. Now that Rustom Roy and Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley give credibility to this idea, let us come out of our delusion that genetic engineering and nano-technology would solve all our problems, especially of poverty. Poverty is maintained in the world thanks to the rich mans proclivity for comfort and his greed.

There are so many imponderables in human physiology that one could never predict time evolution in human beings. The slight changes that we have the power to make in the initial state (like surgery in healthy people and genetically engineered molecules introduced into the body) using our hi-tech stuff might not do what they are intended to do, as time evolves. On the contrary, they might even harm (they have) as time evolves through the butterfly effect of Edward Lorenz.

Indian poverty could be eased if nanotechnology could produce cheap alternate energy sources in place of the fossil fuel for which India is paying millions of dollars every year. If this money could be diverted to health care (clean drinking water for everyone, three square uncontaminated meals, a toilet for every house to avoid the ravages of hookworms, and avoidance of cooking smoke coming into the house with deadly carbon monoxide, and economic empowerment and education of women) Indias health scenario will change dramatically. Instead, if we concentrate on cancer treatment we will probably end up with more problems. Cancer has remained undefeated so far! Nano effort can not change that so easily. War on cancer has to be fought on a holistic front.

No competing interests declared.