"The research may be in its infancy, but there is every reason to act now when it comes to investigating risks. Why make the same mistakes that we have seen in previous medical and technical development?", says Rickard Arvidsson, researcher at the Department of Technology Management and Economics, Chalmers University of Technology.
In a new literature study, Rickard Arvidsson, together with researcher Steffen Foss Hansen at the Technical University of Denmark, DTU, analyses the nanorobot research field. The largest use for nanorobots is in medicine, where they are developed to be able to attack tumors, dissolve blood clots or deliver medicines to a specific part of the body. But nanorobots could also be used in, for example, remediation of polluted water or land. The researchers looked specifically at three different types of nanorobots that have begun to be developed within the research field: helices, nanorods and DNA robots. In terms of the ability to deliver medicines to specific parts of the body, nanorods and DNA robots have come the furthest.
Rickard Arvidsson explains that in the early days of nanosafety research, in the 2000s, there were ideas and thoughts that nanomaterials could be used to create self-replicating robots, which could multiply and, in a dystopian future, take over society. Today, however, the research field has moved towards focusing on passive nanomaterials, such as nanoparticles of various kinds.
"Active materials, which include nanorobots, have largely fallen out of the radar. We want to resume focus on active nanomaterials with the ability to act independently, even if those that are developed today are not self-replicating", says Rickard Arvidsson.
Technology carries risks
Based on the study, the researchers identify a range of risks, or issues, that they believe society must explore to avoid that nanorobots may pose a danger or risk to health or the environment in the long run.
"In the intended uses, namely healthcare and remediation, exposure to nanorobots is inevitable. If they are to be used to deliver medicines, they must come into contact with the body and if they are to break down pollutants in the environment, they must come into contact with the environment. In this respect, nanorobots are similar to drugs and pesticides", says Rickard Arvidsson.
The risk of exposure must therefore be taken very seriously, according to the researchers, as some of the nanorobots developed today contain problematic metals such as the environmentally hazardous silver and the allergenic nickel. In the case of DNA robots, extracorporeal DNA is injected into the body, which can potentially trigger immune reactions. At the same time, there is a risk that you may lose control of the robots once they are inside the body. UV light, which is used to propel certain nanorods, can also cause skin damage, and in the worst case, cancer.
Confusion over directives
In addition to more analyses of potential risks with nanorobots, there is also a need for greater clarity regarding which regulations nanorobots should fall under. This is an important aspect because it can determine what the work with risks looks like.
"Today, there are basically no dedicated regulations for nanomaterials, and those that do exist usually concern passive nanoparticles. It is unclear whether nanorobots should be seen as a medicine or as a medical device. Depending on the category they fall into, different regulations apply at EU level. This is a key issue because it determines which tests should be done on the nanorobots", says Rickard Arvidsson.
Great potential with new technology
Do the potential risks outweigh the developments and advances that nanorobots can push for in areas such as medicine and health? In other words, do we as a society dare to continue to develop materials and applications increasingly similar to science fiction? It depends on whether we explore the risks first, say Rickard Arvidsson and Steffen Foss Hansen. The opportunities are great, although the technology must be developed much more. For example, several thousand nanorobots are needed to kill a cancerous tumor.
"Our research is not about painting a dark future for nanorobots. We want to ensure that there is a positive use of the technology, based on reflexive and wise regulation, which can detect early signs of danger. We must also reconcile the public's perception of risk with the opportunities that nanorobots can provide", says Rickard Arvidsson.
The researchers hope that their study can initiate a discussion and further research on active nanomaterials, and help initiating a dialogue on how nanorobots should be developed together with experts, researchers, manufacturers, and the pharmaceutical industry.
"Above all, we want to avoid the technology becoming one in a series of mistakes that have occurred historically, such as the frivolous use of X-rays to remove hair or measure feet, or the use of the organic pesticide DDT, which is currently banned in many parts of the world", concludes Rickard Arvidsson.
The article is written as part of the research programme Mistra Environmental Nanosafety. It gathers six universities and several industrial partners, and aims to develop research, knowledge and best practice on risks associated with nanomaterials and their impact on our environment. It is funded by Mistra, the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research. Read more about the research programme at mistraenvironmentalnanosafety.org