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the nanotechnology column


Nanoveau is a new column by Nano author John Robert Marlow. This column will cover the science, the speculation, and (occasionally) the politics of nanotechnology and related topics. If you want to know what nanotech is about, and how and why it will change everything we know—Nanoveau is for you. The name Nanoveau is a combination of nanotechnology and nouveau, the French word meaning new. This column is presented in cooperation with Nanotechnology Now. Visit the Nanoveau homepage.

John Robert Marlow
John Robert Marlow

NANOVEAU #003:  Nanomedicine—Cures All Ills
by John Robert Marlow

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"And he that will this health deny,
Down among the dead men let him lie."


Though nanotechnology promises to deliver unprecedented benefits to the world in general, the benefit to individuals will also be staggering. The second column (The Sound of Inevitability—Why Nanotech Will Happen) explained why nanotech (in the words of Nobel laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman) "cannot be avoided," and listed some of the major corporate and military players. But knowing that governments and corporations are spending billions to benefit themselves is one thing; it's quite another to ask, as human nature demands: "What can nanotechnology do for me?" This column answers that question by focusing on one of nanotechnology's most important—and broadest—applications: nanomedicine.


As explained in the first column (Digital Matter—Understanding Nanotechnology), nanotech will give us the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level—moving individual atoms around, putting them precisely where we want them, and bonding them together so they stay where we want them. By doing this, we'll be able to build, tear apart, rebuild, replace, or modify any object which is made of atoms—and all physical objects are made of atoms. This includes people: bones, skin, organs, blood, right down to the cells and even the DNA itself.

What this means, at its most basic level, is that nanotechnology will be able to repair any physical damage sustained by the human body. Wounds can be healed, deformities corrected, infections destroyed, diseases cured, and defective genes repaired. Because each of these conditions is the result of atoms being where they shouldn't be, simply putting the atoms back where they belong solves the problem. This atom-shuffling will be accomplished by nanorobots (also called nanites): microscopic robots programmed to enter the body, seek out damaged, abnormal, or foreign structures—and repair, replace, or destroy them. Such devices have already been designed; the hard part will be building the first ones (which may well build the next themselves).


The undisputed pioneer in the field is Robert A. Freitas, Jr. He wrote the first detailed technical design study of a medical nanorobot, and is author of (among other things) Nanomedicine, the definitive four-volume work on the medical applications of nanotechnology and medical nanorobotics. To him, the road ahead is difficult, but clearly navigable. At its end: "the indefinite extension of human health."

"Developing 21st century medical nanorobotics," says Freitas, "is an undertaking comparable to the development of the electronic computer industry. It took several technical revolutions and 50 years of relentless market-driven research and development to achieve the present state of development." Nevertheless, what once required a block-square computer several stories high can now be accomplished by a 4-pound laptop, which is also capable of things its gargantuan ancestor never dreamed of. We will see a similar—but far more rapid—progression with nanotechnology.

More rapid because today's nanotechnologists enjoy at least three distinct advantages over last century's computing pioneers, who lacked even handheld calculators. First, we know what is possible; those working on computers were guessing. Second, we can employ advanced supercomputers to aid with design, testing, safety and construction. Third, computers were a product in search of a market; nanomedicine is a multitrillion-dollar market (medicine/pharmaceuticals) waiting for products to be delivered.


Before that can happen, several steps (similar to the "technical revolutions" on the road to modern computers) are necessary. The earliest nanorobot-like devices were microbes whose genes were reprogrammed to make them perform new tasks, such as the production of human insulin for diabetics. These altered microbes first made their appearance in the 1980s, and Freitas notes that progress toward entirely synthetic "biorobots" using selected snippets of natural genomes "is progressing with amazing speed and may produce programmable biorobots by 2010."

The next step after that will be hybrid robots built from engineered structural DNA, synthetic proteins, and other non-natural building materials with novel properties. Finally, we will develop completely artificial, nanoscale diamondoid devices: tiny, programmable nanorobots capable of repairing every cell in the body—and, therefore, every disease and physical injury known to Man.

A report prepared by the Department of Defense predicts that "if a breakthrough to an assembler [by which they mean an automated nanofactory capable of building nanorobots] occurs" between 2007 and 2012, "an entirely new field of nanomedicine will emerge by 2020." The report also notes that "possible applications include programmable immune machines that travel through the bloodstream, supplementing the natural immune system; cell herding machines to stimulate rapid healing and tissue reconstruction; and cell repair machines to perform genetic surgery."

Before we can take that final step, we need to learn how to build nanorobots with all of their the atoms in the right places—physically bonding molecular building blocks to one another with atomic-scale precision. We are now, Freitas estimates, 5-10 years from demonstrating such "mechanosynthesis" (the placement and chemical bonding of individual atoms where we want them to be) in the lab. Soon after this has been accomplished, corporate and government funding will skyrocket, and the age of nanotechnology—and of nanomedicine—will be fully upon us.

When it is, the benefits will not stop at good health...


What is the difference between aging and disease? Progeria is a disease caused by a mutated Lamin A gene. Its victims suffer an acceleration of the aging process so incredibly rapid that death from atherosclerosis, heart attack, or stroke can come at the age of eight. Is such a victim any different, really, from someone who faces death from the same causes because their genes have mutated at the age of 80?

If disease can be defined as something going wrong with an otherwise healthy body, then aging and, indeed, "natural death" itself are diseases. Like diseases, aging and death are in the genes. One might think this means we must unravel the genetic cause(s) of aging in order to halt the process. It does not.

Science has given us over a dozen theories of aging, and despite their differences, all agree on one thing: aging (and, therefore, "natural death") occurs when the body's cellular structure becomes damaged, and the body fails to repair that damage. As we've already seen, nanotech will allow us to repair or replace damaged cells at will, eliminating disease and healing injuries almost instantly.

Because aging is caused by damaged cells, this condition—like any other disease—can be eliminated. And that's not all; because we'll be able to treat the symptoms of aging (the cellular damage itself), we can defeat aging even if we never learn which genes cause the body to age. Finding the actual cause(s) of aging becomes unnecessary, because we can repair the damage caused by aging as it occurs.

More than that, since advanced age is caused by accumulated cell damage—it will be possible to undo or reverse the damage already inflicted on the body. The young will remain young; the old shall be made young. This is perhaps the greatest of all personal benefits promised by nanotechnology—and will be discussed at length in a future column.


Nanotechnology will radically change the face of medicine. The new field of nanomedicine will render today's most exotic procedures commonplace, and enable us to forever vanquish ills which have remained undefeated since since the dawn of Man.

"Once nanomachines are available," Freitas has written, "the ultimate dream of every healer, medicine man, and physician throughout recorded history will, at last, become a reality."


Don't miss Nanoveau #004: Nanoweapons—The Shape of Wars to Come. Online in October.


Thanks to Chris Phoenix of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology for vetting this column.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  John Robert Marlow is a freelance journalist, screenwriter, and author of the novel Nano. All columns, fully-sourced, can be found on the Nanoveau homepage - along with a nanofaq, nanolinks, and more. The content of this column is copyright © by John Robert Marlow, all rights reserved. The first column (Digital Matter—Understanding Nanotechnology) may be freely copied subject to the conditions stated on the Nanoveau rights page, which also contains syndication information.

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"Mark Twain once advised his readers: 'Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.' Something similar might be said of nanotechnology - though in this case, the world could die of a misprint, or a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, the people charged with making policy in this area often lack a complete understanding of the most fundamental concepts of nanotechnology."

Marlow's work has often specialized in two areas: explaining complex scientific and medical topics in understandable terms for a general audience, and weapons & tactics for law enforcement and counterterrorist publications.

"Simply put, with billions of dollars in government nanofunding about to materialize, and private investors eager to capitalize (and capitalize on) research results, everyone and his brother suddenly claimed (often with little or no justification) to be working in the hot field of "nanotechnology"-something akin to the recent dot-com boom. The unfortunate effect has been to confuse the public as to just what nanotech really is (for a particularly absurd example, see Little Robots In Your Pants, a transcript of a recorded conversation with clothier Dockers' customer service department).

This is of course good for those not really working on nanotech (but receiving funds from those who think they are), and bad for both those actually engaged in the field-who are bound to be damaged in the public's perception when the fake nanocompanies are exposed and/or fail-and those who simply want to see the field advance as swiftly as possible."

Excerpt from the April NanoNews Now Monthly Report on Nanotechnology & Security by John Robert Marlow ... read the entire article and much more.

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