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December 8th, 2008

Smart Dust May Revolutionize Health Care

Second Of Two Parts

Experts say smart dust's future, despite challenges, glitters with nearly limitless possibilities.

Some British scientists say smart dust could be used by space probes to explore other planets. Swarms of tiny chips, for example, could be released into the Martian atmosphere to do chemical analyses.

Some have darker visions. Author Michael Crichton's 2002 novel "Prey" imagines clouds of nanorobots spying on and attacking people.

Futurist Alvin Toffler envisions smart dust helping to detect changes in the home and environment.

But both Toffler and Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Nanotech Institute in Menlo Park, Calif., see downsides. They say these tiny nanoparticles can be used to invade privacy or exploited by criminals. (See Q&A, Page A4.)

Mark Ratner, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University, says smart dust will spark major shifts in how drugs are delivered to parts of the human body.

He says drugs can be enclosed inside a tiny nanoparticle with a polymer skin. Thousands of such nanoparticles could then be injected in the right part of the body with maximum effect. If the drug were a chemotherapy agent, for example, it could reach a tumor without losing any of its potency through digestion.


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