The European Commission has started a discussion on its strategy for developing Europe's nanotechnology industry, and is seeking comments on its proposals put forward in June.
While the European Union is at the forefront of research into nanotechnology, this position is in danger of being eroded, with both the US and Japan investing more per capita in the new technology. Among the EC's proposals are a doubling in funding for the sector in its next research budget in 2006.
"Europe must build upon the solid knowledge base that it has developed through research in nanosciences and nanotechnologies and translate this into useful and commercially viable products and services," commented Philippe Busquin, the European Research Commissioner.
"At the same time we must play a proactive role for ensuring its safe and responsible development and use, also at global level," European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said. "It now important to gather the views of all stakeholders in order to help prepare effective and efficient future initiatives at European level."
Nanotechnology is a new approach to research and development for controlling the fundamental structure and behaviour of matter at the level of atoms and molecules. It is expected to have applications in a broad range of industries, but there are near-term, tangible uses in pharmaceuticals and medicine.
A just-published report by Frost & Sullivan predicts that 'nanomedicine' technologies could find an increasing place in various areas and applications of the healthcare sector including drug delivery, drug discovery and development, diagnostics and medical devices.
For example, nanotechnologies for the early diagnosis of diseases could usher in a new era of superior prophylactic or preventive medicine. By using preventive medicine, treatment for diseases could be initiated even before preliminary symptoms appear.
If nanomedicine's adoption rates in pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, and drug delivery companies are anything to go by, its prospects in the healthcare industry seem bright, according to F&S analyst Rajaram Sankaran.
Nanocrystal technology, for instance, is already being used in drug formulation and New Chemical Entity (NCE) screening in the discovery phase of drug development. Meanwhile, so-called quantum dot particles - which have the benefit of fluorescing very brightly so they are easier to read - are starting to be applied in high-content drug screening and in the detection of breast cancer cells.
However, as with other new technologies, nanomedicine also faces its own set of issues. Scalability is one of its biggest technological challenges. While large-scale production makes better economic sense, this is likely to be a complex task, especially when manufacturing three-dimensional nanostructures as compared to stand-alone or two-dimensional layer-shaped nanosurfaces.
This perceived difficulty is attributed to the fact that manufacturing standards for nanomaterials and components are yet to evolve. Therefore, there is an urgent need for standardised manufacturing techniques, as only then can nanotechnology become ubiquitous in everyday applications.
"Furthermore, since the characteristics of nanoscale matter are very different owing to their unique nature, there is a need for appropriate quality control measures that are specific to them," noted Sankaran.
Nanotechnology also faces a strong challenge in the shape of negative public perceptions with growing reports about the possible toxic effects of exposure to nanoparticles.
Concerns about the potential ill effects of engineered nanomaterials such as carbon buckyballs and nanotubes through inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through the skin are increasing. For example, in early-stage studies it has been shown that inhaled nano-sized particles accumulate in the nasal cavities, lungs and brains of rats, raising concerns that this build-up could lead to harmful inflammation and a risk of brain damage or other central nervous system disorders.
Although this evidence is so far sporadic, "it is essential for the nanomedicine community to take the lead in defining the risks associated with nanotechnology," according to Sankaran.
Proactively supporting experts in risk communication can help avert a situation in which the public might actually reject the technology due to unexplained fears and worries, he said.
The EU has an excellent knowledge base, with 32 per cent of international nanotechnology publications in 1997-1999, compared to 24 per cent in the US and 12 per cent in Japan. But Europe is now investing proportionately less than its main competitors, according to the Commission.
An EU-funded network called Nanoforum has been created to serve as a forum for ideas, and has set up an online questionnaire. It is encouraging interested persons to submit their responses before 30 September.
The outcome of this survey will be published in the form of a freely available report and will help shape future European initiatives in this area. The European Council is planning to complete its deliberations later this year, and will subsequently publish its 'Action Plan'.
"Its now important to gather the views of all stakeholders in order to help prepare effective and efficient future initiatives at European level," said Busquin.