Editorial Feature

Nanotechnology as an Enabling Technology - The Ethical Considerations

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Evolution of the human-machine interface is possibly one of the most disputed subjects. It is necessary for the society to ascertain, at the initial stage itself, whether it has the right to administer new technologies on individuals in any situation.

Several new technologies will assist in disease diagnosis and treatment, and consequently enhance the quality of life. Even though many of the ideas formulated in nanomedicine might appear to be in the territory of science fiction, only a few more steps are required to turn them into reality, thus the “time-to-market” of these technologies will not be as long as it looks like today.

Monitoring and Diagnosis of Disease and Treatment with Nanomedicine

In the near future, nanotechnology will enable the tracking, diagnosis, and treatment of many diseases in the least invasive manner possible, and it thus holds substantial promise of enhancing health and prolonging life. While personalized or molecular medicine will deliver improved diagnosis and prevention of disease, nanomedicine might truly be the next innovation in disease treatment.

However, there has also been a lot of discussion in the literature about creating nanotechnologies for human “performance enhancement.” This includes enhancements to humans with respect to physical strength, augmenting mental ability, and engineering interfaces with electronic devices (for example, control of communication or equipment by direct neural implants).

Ethical Considerations Associated with Machine Nano-Interfaces

Both facets of the human-machine nano-interface have ethical considerations. The key to enhancing human performance will be whether it will always stay voluntary, or whether we can envisage a point in time when, to accomplish a work role competently, a worker must be “equipped” with a neural implant (for example, to accurately regulate a machine)?

Even if such implants are only used on a voluntary and individual basis, what will be the wider repercussions for society? Will such improved individuals turn out to be an elite group? Will they be deterred from specific activities (for instance, athletics, as those who use anabolic steroids are at present)? Or, will they be actively pursued, by some employers, to the disadvantage of “normal” individuals?

Moral and Ethical Considerations Associated with Nanotechnology for Disease Diagnosis

Even the application of nanotechnologies for disease diagnosis and treatment has future ethical repercussions. Microarray technologies and DNA analysis are one such example. These were fundamental to the success of the human genome project and have continued to transform into highly swift and sensitive systems for genetic analysis.

A majority of the researchers believe that these developments will provide the time and cost necessary to sequence the total genome of an individual within the reach of many clinics. This could facilitate the screening of persons for genetic mutations, which raises a number of ethical and moral questions: Should a person be informed that they have a genetic predisposition to an illness that might not impact them until later in life, or not at all?

Should a couple be informed that if they conceive a child, that child would have a non-life-threatening disorder? Who would make certain that such information, if it is obtained, is kept confidential and not forwarded to other parties, such as insurance companies (who then might refuse life or health insurance based on these discoveries)?

Without a doubt, will it then be a precondition that a person requiring such insurance must be screened? Moreover, will this reject individuals who are unable or reluctant to be screened from participating in society as “full” members?

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