Europe needs major investment in medical applications of nanotechnology

18 December 2005

The European Science Foundation (ESF) has called for a clear strategy and investment plan to ensure Europe does not miss out on the benefits of nanomedicine. This was the result of its wide-ranging Forward Look Study on Nanomedicine.

The report concludes that nanomedicine is about to deliver a healthcare paradigm shift in which it will be possible to monitor people on the basis of known genetic predispositions, diagnose disease before there are any symptoms, administer drugs that are precisely targeted, and use non invasive imaging tools to demonstrate that the treatment was effective.

The ESF report notes that Europe is particularly strong in many areas of nanotechnology needed for advances in nanomedicine and that several European companies are at the cutting-edge of research in this area. Another positive note is that funding in Europe for nanotechnology research is rapidly growing. However, the report also warns that Europe’s ability to lead and benefit will be compromised unless a series of key recommendations are followed.

A nanometre is defined as a billionth of a metre — 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Nanomedicine uses nano-sized tools for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of disease and to gain deeper understanding of complex causal factors. Nanotechnology is the development of objects and machines measured in nanometres to probe and manipulate biological systems on the molecular level.

The ESF Forward Look study on Nanomedicine was a two-year-long study begun in late 2003 and completed in November 2005 following the realisation that nanomedicine – defined as using “nano” miniaturised molecular tools and molecular level knowledge of the human body to diagnose and treat disease – was becoming a reality. This mirrors a similar pattern in the electronics and materials sector. Gathering the leading European experts in the field from across academia and industry, the study set out to define the field, discuss the future impact on healthcare and society, assess the current situation and Europe’s strengths and weaknesses, deliver recommendations on future research trends and funding priorities and the organisational and structural changes needed at national and European level to ensure success.

The ESF report found that nanomedicine is already delivering significant benefits through new diagnostics, imaging agents and even nanomedicines themselves. Examples mentioned included biosensors from Oxford Biosensors, imaging systems from Philips and Schering, and polymer-based cancer therapeutics from Celltech.

Chaired by Professor Ruth Duncan, Cardiff University, UK, the report carries the following recommendations:

  • A strategic focus on nano-therapeutics for major disease areas such as cancer, neurodegenerative and cardiovascular disorders.
  • 5- and 10-year plans to enable manufacturing industry to move to production of in vitro multi-analyte nanodiagnostics and in vivo nanosensors and devices.
  • Interdisciplinary education and training in nanomedicine, to ensure that Europe has sufficient specialists in the field and to prevent “braindrain”.
  • Support for collaborations in nanomedicine between academics and industry including access to manufacturing facilities.
  • Acknowledgement that nanomedicines represent a new class of pharmaceuticals and that there needs to be a new regulatory approach.
  • Confronting safety and environmental concerns such as toxicity.
  • Ensuring that politicians, the media and the general public are informed about nanomedicine and understand its advantages and potential drawbacks.

“We hope this report will be welcomed and form a catalyst for action,“ concludes Professor Duncan “ I truly believe that we are at the dawn of a new beginning, and that implementation of these recommendations should enable Europe to play a continued leading role in the controlled development of nanomedicine.”

ESF’s CEO Bertil Andersson says that he is “pleased to see the successful conclusion of this foresight study, which has been the first such exercise focused on medical applications of nanoscience and nanotechnology.” He added that implementation of the recommendations laid out in the policy briefing should ensure that Europe remains at the leading edge of research and development in nanomedicine. Most importantly, this will lead to “reduced healthcare costs and the rapid realisation of medical benefits for all European citizens.”

European Science Foundation: www.esf.org/
ESF Policy Briefing: Scientific Forward Look on Nanomedicine (236K PDF file)  www.esf.org/publication/196/ESPB23.pdf

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