Some day soon, in a remote village in the developing world, a health worker will put a drop of a patient's blood on a piece of plastic about the size of a coin. Within minutes, a full diagnostic examination will be complete including the usual battery of "blood work" tests, plus analysis for infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, hormonal imbalances, even cancer.
That remarkable piece of plastic is called a "lab-on-a-chip" and it is one of the revolutionary products and processes currently emerging from nanotechnology research with the potential to transform the lives of billions of the world's most vulnerable inhabitants.
In a new study by researchers at the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics (JCB) an international panel of 63 experts were asked to rank the nanotechnology applications they think are most likely to benefit developing countries in the areas of water, agriculture, nutrition, health, energy and the environment in the next 10 years. The study is the first ever ranking of nanotechnology applications relative to their impact on development.
The nanotechnology applications that were rated the highest were, in rank order:
1. Energy storage, production, and conversion
2. Agricultural productivity enhancement
3. Water treatment and remediation
4. Disease diagnosis and screening
5. Drug delivery systems
6. Food processing and storage
7. Air pollution and remediation
9. Health monitoring
10. Vector and pest detection and control
The study also relates the impact of nanotechnologies to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. In 2000, all 189 member states of the UN committed to achieve eight goals - which aim to promote human development and encourage social and economic sustainability - by 2015. The study authors describe how the top ten nanotechnology applications can help contribute to these goals.
"The targeted application of nanotechnology has enormous potential to bring about major improvements in the living standards of people in the developing world," said Dr. Peter Singer, one of the authors of the study. "Science and technology alone are not going to magically solve all the problems of developing countries but they are critical components of development. Nanotechnology is a relatively new field that will soon be providing radical and relatively inexpensive solutions to critical development problems."
The authors point out that several developing countries have launched their own nanotechnology initiatives in order to strengthen their capacity and sustain economic growth. For example, India's Department of Science and Technology will invest $20 million over 2004-2009 for their Nanomaterials Science and Technology Initiative.
"There is a clear need for the international community to accelerate the use by less industrialized countries of these top nanotechnologies to address development challenges sustainably," said Dr Abdallah Daar, another of the study's authors.
- Salamanca-Buentello F, Persad DL, Court EB, Martin DK, Daar AS, et al. Nanotechnology and the developing world. PLoS Med, 2(4): e97
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