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Nanotechnology: Small Objects of Great Importance

By Christina M.H. Powell


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Science not only helps us explore the vastness of the universe, but science also reveals the wonders of a world too small to be seen with a light microscope. In fact, many exciting discoveries concern ways to build objects on the nanometer scale. A nanometer, one-billionth of a meter, is about 80,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Yet technology on this scale has made the iPad and other high-capacity disk drives possible. Common products, such as vanishing sunscreen and other cosmetics, use nanoparticles. Nanotechnology offers an exceptional opportunity to make major advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Beyond the real-world applications currently under development, many may be familiar with the science-fiction version of nanotechnology. The food replicator in Star Trek that produced everything imaginable, including Earl Grey tea, is one futuristic application of nanotechnology principles. Of course, as with any new scientific frontier, ethical concerns emerge. Yet pastors will find that a balanced, biblical approach to technology offers useful guiding principles for this new field as well as other areas of medical ethics. Nanoparticles may be small, but the ethical lessons are of great importance.

Building Small Wonders

Nanotechnology brings together many different scientific disciplines, such as engineering, molecular biology, and clinical medicine. Measuring, imaging, and manipulating matter from 1 to 100 nanometers in size requires interdisciplinary collaboration. While nanotechnology is changing many fields, including electronics, information technology, and materials science, some of the most amazing applications involve finding new ways to diagnose and treat human diseases.

The nanoscale is the scale of most large biomolecules, such as DNA and antibodies. Most important biological processes within the cell, including the development of cancer, occur on the nanoscale. Nanotechnology allows researchers to observe and direct those processes on the same scale as natural biomolecules. For example, nanoparticles can help surgeons locate and remove cancerous growths by improving the accuracy of imaging. Medical personnel can target small magnetic particles to bind only to cancer cells, allowing precise visualization of the location of malignant growths.

Medical personnel can also target nanoshells, shaped like hollow spheres, to cancer cells and use them to deliver heat directly to these cells, killing only the cancer and sparing normal tissue. They can also build nanodevices in a variety of useful shapes, such as tubes, spheres, wires, and hinges. Through the technique of DNA origami, a researcher succeeded in engineering DNA structures in the shape of smiley faces, demonstrating the precision possible in constructing various shapes of nanodevices. They can use these nanodevices to deliver therapeutic drugs directly to cancer cells, protecting normal cells from side effects.

Researchers could also theoretically use nanodevices to repair cells, correcting DNA damage or enzyme deficiencies. Someday advanced nanodevices controlled by a nanocomputer could possibly perform surgery on the cellular level, mimicking the body’s own natural healing mechanisms. Nanotechnology already has enhanced regenerative medicine by providing new ways to isolate, trace, and regulate adult stem cells.

Crossing Barriers

What makes nanotechnology so powerful also creates potential safety concerns. At the nanoscale, the properties of a material can change drastically as quantum mechanics take effect. For example, carbon in the form of graphite, such as the lead in pencils, is soft and malleable. Carbon at the nanoscale, however, can be six times stronger than steel. The zinc oxide found in typical sunscreens is white and opaque. Nanoscale zinc oxide is transparent and capable of vanishing into the skin. While these changes from the bulk form to the nanoscale form are positive, scientists are concerned that quantum effects could make some nanoparticles toxic. Thus, even if research shows a material is safe in its bulk form, researchers should still conduct toxicity studies on the nanoscale form.

Nanoparticles not only cross the barrier from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics, but they also become capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier because they are so small. The blood-brain barrier is a membrane that normally protects the brain from harmful chemicals circulating in the bloodstream. Researchers can harness the ability of nanoparticles to cross this barrier to treat brain tumors. Of course, the flip side of the ability to cross this barrier is the realization that nanoparticles in our environment could be potentially poisonous to us.

A final barrier that nanotechnology may someday cross is the human enhancement barrier. Nanotechnology in medicine could give us new abilities, such as night vision, rapid healing, or increase our natural abilities to make us smarter and stronger. Such technology could have serious social implications. For example, wealthier individuals could have access to technologies that give them a dramatic advantage over individuals unable to afford the enhancements. The possibility of making irreversible, inheritable modifications to humans raises questions about the dangers to future generations. Finally, any futuristic uses of nanotechnology for human enhancement must consider the impact of the technology on human dignity.

Balancing Risk and Reward

Both the nanotechnologies in use today and the speculative nanotechnologies that are closer to science fiction than product development underscore the importance of thinking through ethical issues raised by scientific advances. While the Bible does not speak of biomolecules, the Bible does address truths about the human condition that impact all technologies.

A Christian could point to Genesis 1:26–28 where God gives mankind dominion over the rest of creation to support the research enterprise. Yet another Christian viewpoint might view nanotechnology as mankind’s attempt to “play God,” altering the building blocks of creation to create new biomolecules and new forms of materials. Perhaps a better approach to developing a Christian view of nanotechnology recognizes that mankind has a responsibility to good stewardship. Developing new technologies to cure diseases and solve problems comes with the responsibility of considering the impact of the technology on human health, on the environment, and on subsequent generations.

The biblical principle of accountability can provide useful safeguards for new technologies without hampering scientific progress. Proverbs 27:17 teaches, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” In the world of medicine, appropriate regulations provide such accountability. Regulations also protect against negative social impact from technologies. Scientists can help society understand what changes are possible through new technology. Society, in turn, can decide what changes should be made and how those changes will impact human flourishing.

The Bible teaches the need for humility in our spiritual lives. For example, Proverbs 11:2 cautions, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Humility in developing new technologies means acknowledging human limitations and the possibilities of errors and oversights in current thinking. A cautious approach to crossing barriers with new scientific developments prevents costly mistakes and potential harm to both humans and the environment. Humility in research means a respect for human dignity and a restraint in designing technologies that will alter the genetic code of future generations.

The Bible also teaches the reality of evil. Luke 6:45 states, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.” We can use a powerful new technology that can alleviate suffering and improve human lives to create weapons and means of destruction. As a result of the reality of evil in this world, scientists and engineers must take precautions to prevent people from using new discoveries for evil purposes.

Finally, the Bible teaches the importance of balance and avoiding extremes (Ecclesiastes 7:18). Applied to nanotechnology, this principle reminds us to weigh the risks and rewards when designing materials on the nanoscale. Nanoparticles that provide convenience or a cosmetic benefit, such as a vanishing sunscreen, are worthwhile only if the risk of toxicity remains low. A cancer treatment that provides a life-saving treatment when no other option is available may be worth trying even if a risk of toxicity is present.

Pastors have the opportunity to set a healthy tone for parishioners interested in a biblical approach to new technologies, such as nanotechnology. By emphasizing biblical principles such as responsibility, accountability, humility, goodness, and balance, pastors can lay groundwork useful for exploring the ethical implications of any new technology. Science can help us build small wonders, while biblical wisdom can help us determine what wonders are worth building.

Christina M.H. Powell

CHRISTINA M. H. POWELL, an ordained minister, author, medical writer, research scientist trained at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University, and the author of "Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard Ph.D. Explores Challenges to Faith" (InterVarsity Press, 2014).She speaks in churches and conferences nationwide and addresses faith and science issues at www.questioningyourdoubts.com.

 

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