AzoNanotechnology  [Printer-friendly version]
August 23, 2006


Analysis of the issues and principles to be faced by the medical
application of nanotechnology

[Rachel's introduction: The European Union's Group on Ethics in
Science and New Technologies will analyze the ethical issues inherent
in the medical uses of nanotechnology. This article is based on a
"vision document" published by the European Commission, the EU's
environmental agency. Note the emphasis on the importance of the
precautionary principle.]


The ageing population, the high expectations for better quality of
life and the changing lifestyle of European society call for improved,
more efficient and affordable health care.

Nanotechnology can offer impressive resolutions, when applied to
medical challenges like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's or Alzheimer's
disease, cardiovascular problems, inflammatory or infectious diseases.

Experts of the highest level from industry, research centers and
academia convened to prepare the present vision regarding future
research priorities in NanoMedicine. A key conclusion was the
recommendation to set up a European Technology Platform on
NanoMedicine designed to strengthen Europe's competitive position and
improve the quality of life and health care of its citizens. This
article has been extracted from the vision paper "European Technology
Platform on NanoMedicine -- Nanotechnology for Health" produced by
the European Commission.

Ethical Issues

Nanotechnology offers great promise for medicine, but much of this
lies in the future. This future orientation has made nanotechnologies
vulnerable to the current zeitgeist of over claiming in science,
either the potential benefit or harm. There is a need to be careful
about placing premature weight on speculative hopes or concerns about
nanotechnologies raised ahead of evidence. Foresighting of
breakthrough technologies is notoriously difficult, and carries the
risk that early public engagement may promote either public assurance
or public panic over the wrong issues.

Nanotechnology as an enabling technology for many future medical
applications touches on issues such as sensitivity of genetic
information, the gap between diagnosis and therapy, health care
resources and tensions between holistic and functional medicine. On
the other hand nanotechnology will add a new dimension to the bio
(human) and non-bio (machine) interface such as brain chips or
implants, which eventually might raise new ethical issues specific to
NanoMedicine. This requires careful analysis of ethical aspects in
view of existing standards and regulations by ethics committees at the
European scale.

At the same time new nanomedical inventions have to be evaluated for
new ethical aspects by ethical, legal and social aspects -
specialists. The most crucial point in this regard is an early
proactive analysis of new technological developments to identify and
discuss possible issues as soon as possible. This requires a close
collaboration and co-learning of technology developers and ethics
specialists assisted by communication experts to ensure open and
efficient information of the public about ethical aspects related to
nanomedicine. This co-evolution will ensure a socially and ethically
accepted development of innovative diagnostic and therapeutic tools in

From the above it is clear that an in-depth ethical analysis is
necessary in this field. Such an analysis should be based on the
following principles.

Human Dignity and the derived ethical principles of:

** Non-instrumentalisation: The ethical requirement of not using
individuals merely as a means but always as an end of their own.

** Privacy: The ethical principle of not invading a person's right to

** Non-discrimination: People deserve equal treatment, unless there
are reasons that justify difference in treatment. It is a widely
accepted principle and in this context it primarily relates to the
distribution of health care resources.

** Informed Consent: The ethical principle that patients are not
exposed to treatment or research without their free and informed

** Equity: The ethical principle that everybody should have fair
access to the benefits under consideration.

** The Precautionary Principle: This principle entails the moral duty
of continuous risk assessment with regard to the not fully foreseeable
impact of new technologies as in the case of ICT implants in the human

The last of these principles (the Precautionary Principle) is
particularly important in this particular context.

Ethical Analysis

The ethical analysis should also examine value conflicts. There could
be conflict between the personal freedom to use one's economic
resources to obtain advanced treatment such as NanoMedicine and what
society at large considers desirable or ethically acceptable. Freedom
of researchers may conflict with the obligation to safeguard the
health of research subjects. Concern for economic competitiveness and
other economic values (economic growth) may come into conflict with
respect for human dignity. The unrestricted freedom of some may
endanger the health and safety of others. Therefore a balance has to
be struck between values that are all legitimate in our culture.

Source: European Commission