For centuries, man has searched for miracle cures to end suffering caused by disease and injury. Many researchers believe nanotechnology applications in medicine may be mankind’s first 'giant step' toward this goal.
Nanomedicine not only has the potential to change medical science dramatically but to open a new field of human enhancements that is poised to add a profound and complex set of ethical questions for health care professionals. For instance, there is a fine line between medical and non-medical uses of nanotechnology for diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive purposes (e.g. non-medical implants in soldiers). The question of whether nanotechnology should be used to make intentional changes in or to the body when the change is not medically necessary is just one hot topic in a long list of concerns. The good news is that these questions are being asked, but there is still much work to be done, but despite the enormous promise of nanomedicine, and the considerable funding going into the field, the research into the ethical, legal and social implications of nanomedicine is comparatively minute.
Nanomedicine is not a single class of medical interventions that can easily be analyzed from an ethical perspective. Nanomedicine not only includes a wide range of technologies that can be applied to medical devices, materials, procedures, and treatment modalities, but this emerging field also will evolve dramatically in the years and decades to come, likely with unexpected breakthroughs that are impossible to predict.
No matter how many years it will take before we get there, nanomedicine will usher in a new area in health care that will be highly accurate, less painful, less toxic, and with fewer side effects than their current counterparts. Pharmaceuticals will be more effective and less toxic; disease monitoring can be done on a highly sensitive and specific level; and surgical procedures that require poking and cutting will become a thing of a barbaric past.
Some critics caution that the utopian idea of a vastly extended lifespan on the basis of nanomedicine looks at least from the perspective of today’s political and economic situation more like a nightmare than an utopia. They argue that pushing these enhancement scenarios offer a cynical perspective in view of what should and could be done with the help of nanomedicine in order to alleviate real human pain.
BioEthics International (01/10/08)
University of California, Santa Barbara (01/14/08)