According to the European Science Foundation (ESF), Europe is at the leading edge of an exciting new wave of technology called "nanomedicine", with the potential to transform medical care and research.
This was the conclusion of a two-year study by the ESF entitled "Scientific Forward Look on Nanomedicine", which was unveiled at a press briefing in Brussels on December 15th.
Ten speakers took part in the briefing, including Professor Ruth Duncan of the University of Cardiff, UK, who had a leading role in the forward look.
The briefing reviewed the ESF’s role in promoting nanomedical research, and what Europe needs to do to stay at the forefront of this field.
Professor Duncan broadly defined nanomedicine as the medical application of nanotechnology, which is the development of objects and machines measured in nanometres, or one billionth of a meter.
The briefing highlighted some important nanomedical applications, such as the development of nano-sized diagnostic tools and unique nano-scale pharmaceuticals and drug delivery systems.
On the basis of the advances already made in nanomedicine, Professor Duncan concluded that, "the use of nanotechnology in medicine will make a major impact on healthcare in the 21st century."
She further emphasised that Europe is at the forefront of research in several areas of nanomedicine, including the development nanomedical imaging agents and drugs.
Dr. Julie Deacon of the UK Micro and Nanotechnology Network and Professor Alberto Gabizon of Shaare Zedek Medical Centre and Hebrew University, Israel, agreed that cancer was a prime area of focus for nanomedicine and that nanomedical applications had great potential for its treatment.
One of the first nanomedicines to reach the market was a suspension of the anticancer drug doxorubicin which was packed into fatty nanoparticles called liposomes.
This extended the drug’s lifetime in the body, lowering its cost and toxicity, while increasing its effectiveness. Professor Gabizon underlined the potential for new drug delivery systems made from nanoparticles.
Nanoparticle systems have many advantages over classical methods of drug delivery. They can dramatically alter the absorption, distribution, and persistence of drugs in the body. The targeted delivery of drugs to diseased sites spares sensitive tissues, reducing side-effects.
Professor Rogerio Gaspar of the University of Coimbra, Portugal, was quick to point out that "cancer is not the only therapeutic area" that will benefit from advances in nanomedicine.
Treatments for atherosclerosis, AIDS, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease could be revolutionised by nanomedicine. European research is currently advancing in many different areas.
New European developments include: the imaging of single cells and proteins; the construction of miniaturized analytical devices and the development of nanomaterials for tissue regeneration and drug delivery.
Professor Duncan made it clear that Europe is at the forefront of nanomedical research, but she warned that Europe risks losing medical and economic benefits from these advances because of complications in translating laboratory findings to clinical applications.
In particular, there is an urgent need to improve communication, interdisciplinary collaboration and nanomedical education. Also, a regulatory process specific to nanomedical agents must be created to help accelerate the transfer of discoveries in the laboratory to marketable products.
Professor Wolfgang Kreyling of the Institute for Inhalation Biology, Germany, added that this will be aided by "improved understanding of the toxicological implications, environmental impact, and the risks and benefits" of the use of nanomedical agents.
ESF Chief Executive Bertil Andersson said that he was "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 of the Forward Look study should ensure that Europe remains at the leading edge of research and development in nanomedicine.
Most importantly, he said that this would lead to "reduced healthcare costs and the rapid realisation of medical benefits for all European citizens."