Tuesday, December 14, 2004

I once was blind, but now I see

The News Journal in Delaware informs us that Nanotech's medical payoff is coming.

I agree. It certainly is. However, it will not come very quickly if practicing physicians aren't let in on the nano secret. The News Journal report is fine, as far as basic-research stories go, but it's missing something crucial -- voices from doctors, or even patients, who could take this research and dream up some real-world applications.

I've long suspected that there is a missing link somewhere between the academic, startup and even corporate worlds that I write about and the real-world problems they're supposed to be solving. My instinct has told me that the nanotech "industry" and research community should stop having this long, self-congratulatory conversation with itself and look outward more. But I did not really have any illustrations to prove why this was important. It wasn't until I gave a talk to a group of glaucoma specialists last week that my eyes were truly opened.

There's a gap between the basic nanotech research going on in private industry and academic labs and the ultimate end user of the technology. This group of glaucoma specialists is only one example. I found myself furiously scribbling notes during their sessions because I kept hearing some very familiar key words. They need smarter materials to get medication to the back of the eye and sustain its release. They need drug-delivery devices that are more precise than eye droppers, which are essentially machine guns employed to hit a target the size of a pinhole. They need better monitoring of patients to make sure they follow through on their meds, they need more precise biomarkers for their glaucoma research, and the list goes on. It all sounds familiar to most followers of the nano world, but not to anybody else.

But what I also saw at last week's meeting was what amounted to a collective shrug, a resignation that none of these developments will come their way for at least another decade.

Well, the nanotech business community -- especially the segment that loves to hate me -- would not have recognized me up there. I was their biggest evangelist, turning the docs on to that ol' time nano religion.

I said, in effect, that it is now up to them to take these basic Tinkertoys out of the academic or startup lab and build whatever they want. Despite the government efforts to commercialize nanotechnology, there is still a disconnect between the well-funded research and specialists like them who could do something with these breakthroughs.

What is important to business opportunists, and their "low-hanging fruits," is not necessarily the most important use for the technology. The biomarkers, drug-delivery devices and other technologies that major pharmaceutical companies and medical practitioners are searching for are already under development by disparate groups toiling in labs and startups, looking for funding and wishing the big companies and medical groups would pay attention to them.

These nanoscale technologies are not being sought out by potential customers because they're perceived as too long-term, expensive or risky. And, more than likely, most medical practitioners have not heard of the various academic labs and startups working on solving their problems. I won't mention any names, but more than a few ophthalmologists affiliated with major universities asked me whether their own campuses had nanotech labs. In some cases, I pointed out that their own institution not only had nanotech research going on but was considered to be among the best in the country.

Obviously, what we have here is a major failure to communicate. It's a situation that hits home with me since I'm supposed to be in the communication business.

So, what I see is the nanotech "industry," and the media that cover them, busy holding conferences and promoting one another within the same small circle of friends. Ultimately, having a conversation with yourself turns dull, and even you lose interest in your own company. From my point of view as a journalist, it seems downright silly to continue to try and earn a living writing to please a nonexistent industry that cannot even support itself, much less an industry-insider publication.

So, satisfied that my gut instinct was correct, I'm energized in my mission to bring the nanotech message to as broad an audience as possible. What I did in New York last weekend was what I apparently do best -- irritate people, but with the goal of forcing them to question some of their base assumptions. In this case, I think it worked. Judging from the ophthalmologists' reaction to my talk, I think I opened their eyes as well.

NanoBot Backgrounder
NanoCommerce: Take it Literally
Nano and Commerce: Part 2
Buckyball at 79th and Central Park West

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