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When Thinking Small May Be Huge

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 3, 2011

Nanoscale innovations, which began with imagination and curiosity, now have the potential to change the way we save lives and wage war.

A story by Erica Westly in The Scientist tells how scientists began manipulating particles at the atomic level in the 1980s just because they could. In 1959, she writes, physicist Richard Feynman had imagined that some day patients might "swallow the surgeon" in the form of tiny machines developed by chemical manipulations at an infinitely small scale. Nanotechnology pioneer Paul Alivisatos describes the discovery of the buckyball, a unique geodesic-like structure named for Buckminster Fuller. Its discoverers won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1996. Today, fullerenes, as the structures are now known, are being developed for nanomedicine applications, including delivery of drugs to bodily cells.

Researchers began linking many diseases to impairments in mitochondria, the so-called power house of cells, which generate the chemical energy for a whole range of cell processes. While several diseases are being studied, Westly writes, nanomedicine targeted cancer because theoretically nanoparicles could attack cancer cells from within.

Mauro Ferrari, president of the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston, TX, and colleagues have developed several types of nanomedicine delivery systems that Ferrari believes will eventually be used in treating patients.

Warren Chan, biomedical engineering researcher now at the University of Toronto, has for several years been working with nanosized quantum dots that emit multicolored lights when exposed to ultra violet light. They were initially used in electronic circuitry, he explains in a Science Daily article. He and colleagues realized they could be used in biological research, and could be useful in tracking how a virus infects a cell. Scientists hope nanodelivery systems and quantum dots will dramatically further progress in diagnosing and treating disease.

Nanotechnology innovations may be equally revolutionary in warfare. A Wired Magazine story by Spencer Ackerman reports on how researchers at a "Micro Aviary" at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio are experimenting with tiny unmanned missiles that look to the naked eye like hummingbirds and dragonflies. Another possible development, the story says, is creation of a swarm of spying cyborg bugs. Most nano device are in the experimental stages, but drones large or small raise ethical questions about the disconnect between the public and wars that can be operated by remove control. "War Evolves With Drones, Some Tiny as Bugs," a New York Times story by Elizabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, quotes Brookings Institution scholar Peter W. Singer as saying debating drones is like debating computers in 1979 - they are here to stay and the boom has barely begun. "We are at the Wright Brothers stage of this," he told The Times.

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