Nanotechnology is a promising field, but a lack of regulation means there is uncertainty over the safety of its implementation, particularly in developing countries. This week I received some unexpected insights on nanotechnology and its relationship with industry in different parts of the world. I have been visiting GIANT (Grenoble Innovation for Advanced New Technologies), an interdisciplinary alliance of research institutions in France devoted to promoting scientific development and building links between academics and industry.
Due to their scientific complexity and high research and development (R&D) costs, nanotechnologies have so far been generally available only to industrialised countries. But according to Caroline Gauthier, a senior professor of management and technology at Grenoble School of Management, part of the GIANT cluster, “large firms are today designing affordable solutions to address the so-called ‘bottom of the pyramid’”.
In other words, to thrive outside the saturated market of industrialised economies, nanotech multinationals are trying to reach the untapped pool of poor countries.
“Big companies are not only developing cheaper products, but they are [also] shaping brand new business models targeted at emerging economies. Though whether this will help developing nations or harm them is difficult to say at this stage,” says Gauthier.
Grenoble’s technology alliance is investing increasing energy andmoney in nanotech R&D, and in technology transfer, so I was surprised that one of its members acknowledged the field’s uncertainty.
“It’s a difficult balance between applying the precautionary principle and allowing for scientific potential,” explains Gauthier. “At the moment, we are not able to fully evaluate all the potential consequences that these new technologies may have, for example on the environment, but also on animals or the human population.” She says that some of the chemical components in nanotechnology may turn out to be difficult to control and may become dangerous to consumers and manufacturers.
At the moment, there is “no specific regulation” for nanotech, she adds.
According to Gauthier, informal international regulation of nanotechnology isn’t in the hands of public bodies or governments. Instead, it is large private companies that make the rules because they have the power to influence international markets.
Gauthier thinks that developing countries are more vulnerable than developed ones to the lack of statutory regulation on nanotechnology’s implementation.
“The leading R&D firms normally stick to ethical practices voluntarily adopted among competitors when they work in developed countries.” But they have more freedom not to apply these practices — or to test new ones — in developing countries, she says. This is because in developing countries there can be a lower awareness of the safest ways of deploying nanotechnology.
“There is no choice any more,” she says. “Public institutions will have to cooperate with the private sector in order to set a code of conduct for nanotech implementation.”
Nearly 100 million near-sighted teenagers in developing countries may soon be able to see normally without the need for specialist eye care as a project starts distributing specially designed glasses costing just US$15.
The Child ViSion project, which will begin handing out the first 50,000 pairs of their self-adjusting glasses in Asia this year, aims to provide affordable vision correction to all children who need it in the developing world.
The initiative, paid for by donors and sponsors, is run by the UK non-profit Centre for Vision in the Developing World. They hope that establishing long-term distribution schemes via schools will bring down the costs.
“There are roughly 100 million myopic children in the developing world who need eyeglasses to see the board in class. The Child Vision glasses are essentially an educational intervention to get them to see clearly,” says the project’s founder and director, Joshua Silver.
The prototype glasses are a smaller, lighter and more fashionable version of the adult model, Adspecs. Both work by the wearer pumping silicone oil into the lenses, which change shape, allowing the user to instantly adjust the glasses to their needs.
Self-adjusting lenses are not new. Companies such as Focus on Vision have developed glasses with specially designed lenses that are adjusted by sliding them back and forth.
But according to Silver, Child ViSion glasses are the only variable-power design based on clinically tested data.
In the tests Silver and colleagues measured how accurately around 1,500 near-sighted teenagers aged 12 to 17 in China and the United States used the self-adjusting lenses. They found 95 per cent of children achieved vision just short of normal when looking at the standard eye chart.
“That’s good enough to function in class,” says Silver.
But, Peter Ackland, chief executive officer of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, which leads the VISION 2020 programme along with the WHO, says the glasses are not a replacement for professional eye care.
“Our approach is to try to develop local services where you can get an eye examination at the same time as specs. If you bypass that, you’re going to miss fundamental eye problems that can cause serious problems later in life.”
In places such as Sub-Saharan Africa, however, there can be as few as one optometrist for every million people. Until that number increases, Silver says the glasses can be a useful temporary solution.
Developing countries need stronger pesticide regulation and a better understanding of how pesticides behave in tropical climates, according to experts behind a series of articles published in Science today.
They also need an international body to carry out regular pesticide safety assessments — ensuring they are used properly by farmers who are given thorough training in their use — and to monitor the safety of chemical levels in food, the experts say.
In the face of projections that the global population will reach nine billion by 2050, scientists must develop new technologies to make pesticides safer, and continue research into crops that will not require pesticides at all, according to the special section in Science.
Millions of tonnes of pesticides are used each year in agriculture, sometimes with poor oversight and knowledge regarding theirenvironmental impact, particularly in developing countries.
A review article by a team led by Kathrin Fenner, a senior scientist at the Eawag aquatic research institute in Switzerland, looks at pesticide degradation. It also identifies knowledge gaps in what happens to pesticides once they are applied in the field.
According to Fenner, the biggest challenge is relating what is measured in laboratory studies to what is observed long-term in the environment. One example is what happens to pesticides that have been in the soil for a long time and what products they leave behind as they degrade.
“There are situations that are not covered, or not fully covered, by laboratory studies, especially situations in low concentrations in groundwater,” Fenner says.
Furthermore, laboratory studies carried out for pesticide regulation in the United States or Europe look at factors specific to those regions, such asclimate and soil type, and not at the warmer climate zones where many developing countries lie.
“How relevant that really is to more tropical settings, where you have more organic, carbon-rich soils and higher temperatures, is also somewhat of a knowledge gap,” says Fenner.
“If you reduce plant diseases, you could feed 20 to 30 per cent more calories to people.”
Efforts to lower dependency on pesticides altogether is one option addressed in the Science articles.
A review article by Jeffery Dangl, a biology professor at the University of North Carolina, United States, and his colleagues, reveals developments in the understanding of plant immune systems and DNA sequencing that allow scientists to engineer crops that are less susceptible to pests and disease, and thus require less pesticides.
The technology could help tackle environmental concerns, such asgroundwater contamination. It could also help reduce plant diseases and recover crop losses.
“We lose 20 to 30 per cent of our global food supply to pests and pathogens every year,” Dangl tells SciDev.Net. “If you reduce plant diseases and recover that, you could feed 20 to 30 per cent more calories to people.”
The research would have a significant impact on developing countries, where, Dangl says, there are health issues and poor regulation of pesticide use.
“One often sees farmers throwing chemicals on their plants, using their hands, and without proper clothing, and they often use fungicides and pesticides that are no longer allowed in the developed world,” he says. “There’s poor regulation and poor administration of the regulation.”
One solution could be to strengthen the international body that works to maintain regular safety assessments of pesticides.
According to an article by Philippe Verger, from WHO and Alan Boobis, from Imperial College London, this would be done through improved cooperation with the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues, an expert body that aims to harmonise the requirements and risk assessments on pesticide residues.
“We know developing countries don’t have the resources to adequately assess the risk of these various chemicals,” says Verger. “So the WHO, together with FAO, is providing this regulation to give a framework for evaluating these compounds.”
The importance of improving such a body would not be limited to the developing world. It would ensure internationally that pesticides are licensed and used properly, and that farmers have instructions and training for their use. Most importantly, it would monitor the safety of the levels of chemicals in the food we eat.
“If we want to continue to feed the world population, we have to increase productivity. To do that, pesticides will increase globally, so the sector needs to integrate the protection of public health,” says Verger
A strain of rice genetically engineered to protect against diarrhoeal disease could offer a cost-effective way to protect children in developing countries, according a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation today (8 August).
Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in young children and infants, killing more than 520,000 people each year, according to the WHO. More than 85 per cent of those deaths occur in impoverished countries in Africa and Asia.
The team fed MucoRice-ARP1 to mice they subsequently infected with rotavirus, and found these mice had significantly less virus than mice fed normal rice.
The rice could be used to complement vaccinations to protect childrenwhen they are at their most vulnerable to rotavirus, say the researchers.
But it had not yet been tested on humans, and could take a decade before a final product is ready for distribution, says one of the study’s authors Yoshikazu Yuki, of the University of Tokyo in Japan.
The WHO has recommended since 2009 that rotavirus vaccines be included in national immunisation programmes.
But studies have since shown that these vaccines are less effective in developing countries than in industrialised countries, protecting only 50–60 per cent of people immunised in developing countries, compared with 85–98 per cent in industrialised countries.
The reasons for the drop in effectiveness are not yet established, but weakened immune systems are a likely factor says Miren Iturriza-Gomara, a virologist at the UK-based University of Liverpool and one of the study’s authors.
MucoRice-ARP1 could complement existing vaccine schedules. It would not be a substitute for a vaccine, she says, “but it’s something that in certain situations could be very helpful”.
For example, the rice could be given to children under two years old when rotavirus infection is most likely to prove fatal.
The research team found that MucoRice-ARP1 is most effective when consumed as a powder diluted with water, although the antibodies could also be ingested either in cooked rice or by drinking the water in which MucoRice-ARP1 is boiled.
Iturriza-Gomara says the rice could also prove useful during rotavirus outbreaks by lowering transmission rates.
“We must ensure that all the currently available tools are made available to every child in the world.”
Previous clinical trials in Bangladesh have already established that the antibody arp1 can protect against rotavirus.
Originally found in llamas, arp1 is ideal for oral immunotherapy as it is not readily digested by the acids in the human stomach, according to Iturriza-Gomara.
“Llamas produce single-chain antibodies which have two important properties: one, they are very small and can reach areas of the pathogen which otherwise might not be reached by other antibodies and also because they are single-chain they are very resistant,” Iturriza-Gomara says. “Normal human antibodies are dual-chained. If you eat it and it goes through the stomach, the acid will break it and therefore it won’t be active in the intestine which is where you want it.”
MucoRice-ARP1 would have to be eaten regularly to ensure protection.
“Once you have engineered the rice, then it’s just a matter of growing it,” says Iturriza-Gomara. She says the ease of growing rice, and the fact that it is widely produced as a staple food make it a good vehicle for delivering the antibody. “It can also be stored for years without changes in its edibility,” she says.
While the initial results are promising, says Mathuram Santosham, a leading rotavirus researcher at Johns Hopkins University, United States, “substantially more research is needed to understand the potential impact of this intervention in humans”.
“In the meantime, it is important to remember that we have highly effective tools, which are available now, including rotavirus vaccines, oral rehydration solution and zinc supplementation,” Santosham says. “We must ensure that all the currently available tools are made available to every child in the world.”
“I believe every girl and woman deserves the opportunity to determine her future.”
Why the Urgency?
Today, more than 200 million women in developing countries who don’t want to get pregnant lack access to contraceptives. This is a life and death crisis. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death for women in Africa.
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