ETC makes the case against nanomedicine

The most vocal and unequivocal opponent of nanotechnology – the ETC group – has turned its attention to nanomedicine, with a new report Nanotech Rx taking a sceptical look at the recent shift of emphasis we’ve seen towards medical applications of nanotechnology. The report, though, makes more sense as a critique of modern medicine in general rather than making many specific points about nanotechnology. Particularly in the context of health in the third world, the main thrust of the case is that enthusiasts of technocentric medicine have systematically underplayed the importance of non-technological factors (hygiene, better food, etc) on improving general health. As they say, “the global health crisis doesn’t stem from a lack of science innovation or medical technologies; the root problem is poverty and inequality. New medical technologies are irrelevant for poor people if they aren’t accessible or affordable.” However, in an important advance from ETC’s previous blanket opposition to nanotechnology, they do concede that “nanotech R&D related to water is potentially significant for the developing world. Access to clean water could make a greater contribution to global health than any single medical intervention.”

The debate about human enhancement also gets substantial discussion, with a point of view strongly influenced by disability rights activist Gregor Wolbring. (Newcomers to this debate could do a lot worse than to start with the recent Demos pamphlet, Better Humans? which collects essays by those from a variety of points of view, including Wolbring himself.) ETC correctly identifies the crypto-transhumanist position taken in some recent government publications, and gets succinctly to the nub of the matter as follows: “Certain personality traits (e.g., shyness), physical traits (e.g., “average” strength or height), cognitive traits (e.g., “normal” intelligence) will be deemed undesirable and correctable (and gradually unacceptable, not to be tolerated). The line between enhancement and therapy – already blurry – will be completely obliterated. “ I agree that there’s a lot to be concerned about here, but the issue as it now stands doesn’t have a lot to do with nanotechnology – current points of controversy include the use of SSRIs to “treat” shyness, and modafinil to allow soldiers to go without sleep. However, in the future nanotechnology certainly will be increasingly important in permitting human enhancement, in areas such as the development of interfaces with the brain and in regenerative medicine, and so it’s not unreasonable to flag the area as one to watch.

Naturally, the evils of big pharma get a lot of play. There are the well publicised difficulties big pharma seems to have in maintaining their accustomed level of innovation, the large marketing budgets and the concentration on “me-too” drugs for the ailments of the rich west, and the increasing trend to outsource clinical trials to third world countries. Again, these are all very valid concerns, but they don’t seem to have a great deal of direct relevance to nanotechnology.

In the context of the third world, one of the most telling criticisms of the global pharmaceutical industry has been the lack of R&D spend on diseases that affect the poor. Things have recently changed greatly for the better, thanks to Bill and Melinda and their ilk. ETC recognise the importance of public private partnerships of the kind supported by organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, despite some evident distaste that this money has come from the disproportionately rich. “Ten years ago, there was not a single PPP devoted to the development of “orphan drugs” – medicines to treat diseases with little or no financial profit potential – and today there are more than 63 drug development projects aimed at diseases prevalent in the global South.” As an example of a Bill and Melinda supported project, ETC quote a project to develop a new synthetic route to the anti-malarial agent artemisinin. This is problematic for ETC, as the project uses synthetic biology, to which ETC is instinctively opposed; yet since artemisinin-based combination treatments seem to be the only effective way of overcoming the problem of drug resistant malaria, it seems difficult to argue that these treatments shouldn’t be universally available.

The sections of the report that are directly concerned with those areas of nanomedicine that are currently receiving the most emphasis seem rather weak. The section on the use of nanotechnology for drug delivery section discusses only one example, a long way from the clinic, and doesn’t really make any comments at all on the current big drive to develop new anti-cancer therapies based on nanotechnology. I’m also surprised that ETC don’t talk more about the current hopes for the widespread application of nanotechnology in diagnostics and sensor devices, not least because this raises some important issues about the degree to which diagnosis can be simply equated to the presence or absence of some biochemical marker.

At the end of all this, ETC are still maintaining their demand for a “moratorium on nanotechnology”, though this seems at odds with statements like this: “Nanotech R&D devoted to safe water and sustainable energy could be a more effective investment to address fundamental health issues.” I actually find more to agree with in this report than in previous ETC reports. And yet I’m left with the feeling that, even more than in previous reports, ETC has not managed to get to the essence of what makes nanotechnology special.

4 Responses to “ETC makes the case against nanomedicine”

  1. Moderate Transhumanist says:

    “the global health crisis doesn’t stem from a lack of science innovation or medical technologies; the root problem is poverty and inequality. New medical technologies are irrelevant for poor people if they aren’t accessible or affordable.”

    As much as I hate to say it, the 3rd World has to look after it’s own problems for a change, rather then looking to the first to provide band-aid solutions to problems we can barely concieve of. The ETC group, though staffed by highly articulate and passionate people, always miss the point of the Environmentalist struggle. Actions breed the greatest consequences(either good or bad) and the time for action is now, the time for talking has past long ago.

    Now, I know you’re sitting there thinking, if they cannot help themselves now, how can they possibly do so in the future. Simple. Reach out to the academics in some of the more stable 3rd world countries and tell them a story about the most unlikely of places. The place I’m reffering to is called Gaviotas and it’s in Columbia, 200 miles East of Bagota. It’s story has definately inspired me to the point of making me want to try something like this in my Country(Canada).

    http://www.friendsofgaviotas.org/index.html

    http://www.friendsofgaviotas.org/about.htm

    http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/004910.html

    http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC42/Colombia.htm

    http://www.backspace.com/notes/2003/08/09/x.html

    http://www.pym.org/pym_wgs/comments.php?id=2218_0_141_0_C

    http://www.amazon.com/Gaviotas-A-Village-Reinvent-World/dp/0930031954

    Inanimate ideas, objects, and technologies are not what causes the problems, it’s our careless implementation of them that cause them. Placing a Moratorium would in effect, cause the very problems they are seeking to avoid and they can’t seem to understand that. They think that if you bury something it will stay buried.

    With that said, I do agree with some of their sentiments, but disagree with the spirit of the message, which is, at it’s most basic level, contradictory.

  2. Richard Jones says:

    Thanks for the links. I certainly agree with you that ETC’s call for a moratorium is looking increasingly odd and illogical, even in the context of some of the points they make in their own report.

    In relation to your suggestion that the “3rd World has to look after it’s own problems “, one should perhaps also note that we’re seeing at the moment a remarkable and probably unprecedented growth of prosperity in countries like China and India, entirely as a result of those countries’ own efforts.

  3. Phillip Huggan says:

    “As much as I hate to say it, the 3rd World has to look after it’s own problems for a change, rather then looking to the first to provide band-aid solutions to problems we can barely concieve of.”

    Maybe you should remove the “Moderate” from your name? I’m sure the above quote came out wrong or is references a specific incident of money mismanagement.

    I really want to cheer for the ETC Group, but their unfocused attacks sound too much like Green Peace. ETC is misplacing their anger over a nanotech-facilitated acceleration of the Pareto income distribution (rich get richer even faster as annual productivity gains trend upwards). I don’t like seeing people starve to death in Africa or be denied the ability to manufacture their own anti-AIDS drugs, but as Richard says, nanotech will provide solutions for 3rd world and 1st world problems alike. Siemens and 3M and university clean rooms aren’t responsible for world poverty.

    “Reach out to the academics in some of the more stable 3rd world countries and tell them a story about the most unlikely of places.”

    Nation building and/or poverty reduction require cash and administrative capacity among other things. The cheapest avenue is microfinance but the average academic in a 3rd world nation is lucky to afford a single microloan annually; hardly a comprehensive strategy. The amount of direct and indirect cash 1st world nations are wasting to destroy the 3rd world nation of Iraq (one billion dollars a day) in one month would lift one hundren million people out of (relative) poverty in less than a decade and the capital returned to lender with interest. But that doesn’t buy votes or weapon contracts.

  4. Richard Jones says:

    Phillip, I think you get to the heart of the matter with your comment about the widening of the income distibution. This week’s Economist has an interesting set of articles about the effect of globalisation, one of which makes the obvious but nonetheless important point that the reason we’re seeing the global income distribution widen is simply that at the moment labour is relatively abundant, but capital is relatively scarce; hence the cost of capital increases and the cost of labour decreases with the effect of widening the gap between rich and poor. All advanced technologies are capital intensive, so nanotechnology is just part of this bigger picture (incidentally, this reminds us why the economic analysis of people like CRN is so divorced from reality – they don’t seem to realise that for high technology companies the cost of capital dominates their economics). As far as I can see, the only remedies are the traditional social democratic ones of progressive taxation and safety nets for the poorest.