Miriam Rafailovich is a materials engineering researcher. She is the director of the Garcia Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at Stony Brook University as well as former co-director of the Chemical and Molecular Engineering program at Stony Brook University. Her publications focus mainly on nanoscale materials engineering, including nanofibers, supercritical carbon dioxide, and biodegradable polymers.
Nanotechnology: An Example of Science with Social Responsibility
Ever since Richard Feynman’s famous 1959 lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” – Nanotechnology has had a profound influence on science. Initially it generated favorable public interest and excitement. Then came the David Crichton Novel “Prey” and the review in the New York Times (2002), that claimed “…nanotechnology has been more science fiction than science” and “Prey” was hailed as the expression of the public’s fear of scientists working in secret, to produce “smart” nanobots, to control them. Their message- scientific discovery requires social responsibility combined with public outreach and communication. Nanotoxicology was born as the research companion of nanotechnology.
For example, gold metal, considered safe for centuries, was found to adversely impact human cells when made into nanoparticles that were too small to be detected by the cells natural defense mechanisms. “Gold makes you look old”, wrote the Hindustani times, succinctly summarizing extensive research when the particles penetrated skin cells, simulating the effects of aging. Titanium dioxide, another source of nanoparticles, was considered “safe” enough to be used as a colorant for food and dental products, (M&Ms, Oreos, Tic-Tacs, toothpastes, etc) Yet, a large of body of research now shows that these nanoparticles are more reactive and dangerous than those of gold. Once inside human cells, even at low, concentrations, they damage the cells genetic code, and its associated repair enzymes, sensitizing them to photo-damage, bacterial infection, and cancer. While still present in food products, cosmetic companies have removed nanoparticles from formulations, and they are officially classified as a potential carcinogenic inhalation hazard.
Nanotoxicology has also fueled the rapid growth of nanomedicine. Some nanoparticles were engineered to identify cells harboring disease, and deliver targeted toxicological payloads, while others were immobilized in coatings which accelerated healing. Hence the combination of science and social responsibility was not only ethical, but productive and sustainable.