Medical nanotechnology is a promising area of research, but lack of equity poses problems.
Writer: Similoluwa Ayeniyegbe
Editor: Maja Bronowska
Artist: Vedika Rajavat
Most of us have heard of nanotechnology – the science and technology of materials smaller than 100 nanometres. Think around 1000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. You may be surprised to hear that the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines both use nanoparticles to cage, stabilise and transport mRNA molecules.
But what is the problem?
The COVID-19 nanovaccines must be stored at temperatures as low as -80 °C, which is problematic if developing countries lack operational cold chains. In general, when medical nanotechnologies are developed without considering infrastructural barriers in lower-middle income countries, their use is limited. Such barriers could include minimally trained personnel or the lack of clean water supplies.
The use of nanomaterials and nanoproducts in lower-middle-income countries is not just limited by infrastructural barriers. Some may not desire to use unfamiliar novel medical nanotechnologies if they clash with local beliefs. For example, some religious concerns are that medical nanotechnologies may modify the body until it’s no longer ‘natural.’ Therefore, it is important to bear in mind the social and cultural contexts in which such nanotechnologies will be used.
In order to overcome the infrastructural barriers, local nanotechnology industry sectors need to be strengthened by establishing manufacturing operations in these countries. These medical nanotechnologies also needed to be tested for efficacy in the local areas and their cultural accessibility should be assessed. As a result, medical nanotechnology will be able to reach its full potential in these countries.
Of course, cultural beliefs won’t change overnight, but educating local communities about the benefits of nanotechnology would be impactful. Education and training needs to be available for nanotechnologists, healthcare professionals and government decision-makers. Culturally sensitive public engagement strategies could be developed to encourage local communities to have open-minded discussions about the potential benefits of medical nanotechnology. However, these conversations should also acknowledge the risks and legitimate concerns about this technology. If medical nanotechnologies were developed considering their target context, this would resolve some of the equity issues, but could reduce their versatility.
Besides vaccines, there is ongoing research about using nanoparticles for cancer diagnosis and in antiviral treatments. Clearly, nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionise healthcare globally. Nonetheless, if the majority of medical nanotechnologies focus on diseases that are common in wealthier countries, poorer countries would be severely disadvantaged.
Although the use of nanotechnology to combat disease sounds tempting, it poses a threat to already underprivileged communities. Thus the question remains: is nanotechnology worth the risk of worsening differences in health outcomes between rich and poor countries?