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Fall/Winter 2004 Vol. 4 No. 3



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Nanotechnology chip, courtesy DuPont Nanotechnology Conference Encourages Interdisciplinary Collaboration


Operating on a scale 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, the science of manipulating tiny particles too small to see promises new materials and techniques that could overcome the limits of conventional medicine. Nanotechnology holds great potential for merging fields as disparate as cell biology and robotics, presenting opportunities for collaboration between researchers in very different disciplines. That's one reason 100 scientists, engineers, and medical researchers gathered to attend a two-day, bicoastal conference on nanotechnology in September. Sponsored by the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, the event offered a venue for researchers to share information about advances and challenges in their fields related to nanotechnology. The result: The researchers developed a common language to discuss their work, and they recognized the need for interdisciplinary collaboration to further their efforts.

"Nanotechnology research has a wide intersection between science, engineering, and medicine," said Cherry Murray, senior vice president of physical sciences research, Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, and chair of the conference planning and steering committees. "We want these researchers to forge teams and explore new ideas to spark discovery."

Conference topics ranged from biological machines to tissue engineering. Speaker Peter Singer, director of the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto, began the conference with a session on ethics and philosophical issues surrounding nanotechnology. He called the divide between the nanoscience and nanotechnology community and the technology-wary public one of the biggest challenges facing the field and urged the researchers to engage the public and talk about the ethics of nanotechnology before its opponents shape the debate, as happened with the issue of genetically modified organisms.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing sessions was on the future of medicine. Judith Swain, chair of the department of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, delivered a presentation on the emerging field of pharmacogenomics, which uses the genome to understand an individual's different responses to drugs. This field offers the potential to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases by understanding genetic variations. Swain also touched on promising treatments that incorporate the use of technologies, such as regenerative medicine, stem cell replacement biology, and brain-machine interface in treatment therapies.

In November at the second annual Futures conference, participants continued their discussions on nanotechnology, explored collaborations, and competed for $1 million in research seed grants. This year's grants are designed to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration specifically in the field of nanotechnology. Detailed summaries of both conferences are available at <national-academies.org/keck>.   -- Maureen O'Leary



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Copyright 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences