By Al Scott and Eliza Zhou
Nanobiotechnology represents the convergence of nanotechnology and biotechnology to produce materials and products that use biological molecules in their construction or are designed to affect biological systems. In general, nanotechnology is the application of techniques to manipulate and study matter at the level of molecules and atoms, typically involving particles in the range of one
billionth to 100 billionths of a meter — about 1/80,000 the thickness of a human hair. However, identifying precisely which qualifies as a nanoscale material is still difficult and a subject of substantial discussion in the scientific, regulatory, and standards communities. The high stakes associated with the political, economic, and societal development of nanotechnology have inevitably led it to become an intense field of international competition and cooperation. According to a survey conducted by the European Patent Office, the number of nanobiotechnology-related patent applications in 2003 represented 11% of the total number of nanotechnology-related patents. Nanomaterial research was initiated in China in the late 1980s. At that time, it was also called ultrafine materials research.
TYPES OF NANOTECHNOLOGY APPLICATIONS
Nanotechnology applications can be characterized as passive or active. The distinction is important because it highlights the magnitude of the technological breakthroughs still to come with nanotechnology. Passive applications are those in which the nanomaterial or structure does not change form or function. Passive nanostructures are materials that are typically added to existing products and materials. Active nanostructures or nanomaterials by contrast are able to change their original forms or functions. A simple example is an anticancer drug in which a dendrimer (a type of nanomaterial) is designed to find cancer cells, attach itself to the cells, and then release a chemical that kills them. Most, but certainly not all, of the current R&D presently taking place in China is of this active nature.
CURRENT R&D LANDSCAPE
Basic research in nanotechnology is heavily pursued in Beijing. Approximately 30 institutions are intensively engaged in nanotechnology research. Some of them are as follows:
The National Center for Nanoscience and Technology of China (NCNST) in Beijing, was established in 2003 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Ministry of Education. In August 2006, NCNST established the China Lab for the Bio-Environmental Effects of Nanomaterials & Nanosafety to focus on the economic, environmental, and social aspects of the research, standardization, and regulations of nanotechnology. One example of research undertaken at NCNST includes Dr. Yuliang Zhao’s discovery that C82 nanoparticles selectively kill cancer cells with low unwanted cytotoxicity.
In August 2009, research out of Shanghai Jiaotong University utilized gold nanoparticles as ultrasensitive fluorescent probes to detect cancer biomarkers in human blood. These nanoparticles are promising probes for biomedical applications because they can easily be prepared and, unlike other fluorescent probes such as quantum dots, don’t burn out after long exposure to light. The particles detect carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and alpha fetal protein (AFP) — two important biomarkers in the diagnosis of liver, lung, and breast cancers.
The Institute for Advanced Materials and Nano Biomedicine (iNANO), located at Tongji University in Shanghai, focuses on intelligent nano systems for medical diagnosis and treatment including cell targeting, drug/gene storage and delivery, in vivo imaging, new bio-probes for fast and quantitative virus detection, environmental monitoring, and food testing, in addition to biomaterials, tissue engineering, cell regenerative medicine, and stem cell biology.
The Suzhou Institute of Nanotech and Nanobionics (SINANO) focuses on the development of nanodevices and systems for high-resolution imaging and biosensing; the development of interfacing techniques for the integration of biomedical devices, microelectronic, and optoelectronic techniques; and the development of drug delivery systems and dosage forms.
In early 2009, researchers from Nanjing University in collaboration with colleagues from New York University developed a two-armed nanorobotic device that can manipulate molecules, thereby enabling the creation of new DNA structures that could potentially be used as a “factory” for assembling the building blocks of new materials.
EMERGING COMMERCIAL ENTITIES
The nanotechnology industry continues to grow rapidly in China. Given the pace of continued growth in this sector, it is realistic to believe that more than 1,000 enterprises are now involved in nanotechnology-based commerce in China.
In recent years, China’s government has promoted the growth of new industry — particularly in the high-technology sector, including biotechnology through tax incentives and the development of new facilities to encourage the growth of new biotech-related companies and attract foreign investment. As of 2006, in Beijing there were more than 80 nanotechnology-related companies. In Shanghai there were more than 3,000 people involved in nanotechnology-based industries. Of these individuals, 30% were involved in R&D, and 40% possessed at least a college degree. At this time, there are probably well over 100 nanotechnology companies in Shanghai; 60% of these companies are small start-ups, with most owning the intellectual properties of their products’ technologies.
POTENTIAL BIOLOGICAL IMPACTS
Nanomaterials are increasingly being utilized in medicines for purposes of clinic therapy, diagnosis, and drug delivery. However, recent studies on the biological impacts of nanomaterials demonstrated that some of the nanoparticles exhibit unforeseen toxicity to living organisms, and some nanomaterials may become potentially harmful sources that possibly cause new injury to humans if concentrations of these materials go beyond the safety levels. This has already come to light, from the well-documented incident of permanent lung damage of seven young Chinese women working without proper protection in a paint factory using nanoparticles, resulting in two fatalities.
The meaning of oversight in the context of active nanostructures is a challenge that experts are just beginning to face. On this note, China has been on the forefront in issuing national standards for nanotechnology supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Health, and other agencies. In 2003, the Lab for Bio-Environmental Health Sciences of Nanoscale Materials was established at the Institute of High Energy Physics. In this laboratory, researchers from the nanoscience, biological, toxicological, environmental sciences, and chemical fields work together to explore the biological and environmental (including both the positive and negative) effects of nanoscale materials. The research activities include not only ways to identify the possibly adverse effects of nanomaterials, but also ways to recover or reduce the release of nanoparticles in manufacturing processes and how to eliminate nanotoxicity.
A widespread adverse event from nanotechnology manufacturing or a nanomaterial could present government agencies with a crisis, potentially impeding the further development of the technology significantly. On a more personal level, nanotechnology may also produce materials that could have the same effect on lungs as asbestos, damage human DNA, or wipe out bacteria necessary for the functioning of ecosystems.
CHINA’S EVOLVING HORIZON
In April 2005, China became the first country to issue national standards for nanotechnology, thereby laying the groundwork for international standards and improving its clout in the global nanotechnology market. It has been well-documented that China is producing more scientists and engineers, thus gaining competitive advantages in innovation and discovery in nanoscience. Partnerships among government agencies, academia, and private sectors are crucial for fruitfully developing, utilizing, and standardizing nanomaterials.
Nanotechnology is expected to emerge as a key, transformative technology in the 21st century. Researchers are exploring ways to see novel properties and functions of reengineered substances at this small scale in areas as diverse as healthcare, energy storage, agriculture, environmental protection, and security. Based on rational designs and precise integration of functional nanomaterials, nanobiotechnology and nanomedicine are providing innovative nanodevices for quicker and more accurate diagnosis and nanodrugs for a specific disease focus. These devices and drugs are attracting global investment from governments and private sectors in nanotechnology with the hopes that R&D and commercial applications of nanomaterials, nanodevices, nanoparticles, and nanodrugs, among other uses — both existing and those not yet defined — will provide new impetus for economies pursuing competitiveness in this sector. Given that China has several times the population of any other highly developed nations, watching its shift to a nation that promotes innovation will indeed be an exciting time for the global nanotechnology-based biotechnology community.
About The Authors
Al Scott is principal at NSD Bio Group, LLC. He has several years of experience in specific areas and business functions of biotechnology, including regeneration/tissue engineering, emerging disease diagnostics, regulatory compliance, and technology/operational assessments.
Eliza Zhou is senior consultant/project manager at NSD Bio Group, LLC. She has more than 20 years of diverse experience in the global life sciences industry.