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It's a small world

Although nanotechnology is being embraced by industries as varied as electronics and materials, its biggest promise lies in drug discovery. But is pharma making the most of it?

A globe in a glass caseBig things are happening in the tiny world of nanotechnology but is pharma making the most of it?

In the technological revolution we live in, it isn't difficult to notice that technology is getting smaller. Mobile telephones that once looked and felt like bricks can now fit in the palm of your hand and computers that once filled whole rooms can fit on even the smallest desks. Cars have shrunk to Smart car proportions and bulky television sets are turning flat screen.

In the world of drug discovery, technology has shrunk to even smaller proportions - where dimensions are less than 1/1,000th the diameter of a human hair. Welcome to the world of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology, as defined by the UK Institute of Nanotechnology, is engineering at a very small scale. In more detail, it's the research and development of technologies at atomic, molecular or macromolecular levels in order to create and use technologies that have new functions and properties because of their extremely small size.

Although nanotechnology is being embraced by industries as varied as electronics and materials, many agree that the biggest promise of the technology lies in drug discovery where it is expected to improve the way that drugs are developed and delivered. But are pharmaceutical companies making the most of this potentially revolutionising technology?

Missing out
Earlier this year, a report released by US research and advisory firm Lux Research revealed that big pharmaceutical companies were failing to invest in nanotech.

The report, Why Big Pharma Is Missing The Nanotech Opportunity, found that big pharma companies on average commit 16 people and less than half a per cent of R&D spending to nanotechnology research. In contrast, like-sized electronics and materials firms commit more than 100 people and more than 8 per cent of R&D spending to the research.

Big pharma is not investing in nanotech today, explains Matthew M Nordan, vice president of research at Lux Research. If this trend continues, nanotech will play out in pharmaceuticals just as biotechnology did, with major pharmaceutical companies leaving money on the table and allowing new competitors to take root.

The report's findings were not a one-off. A report conducted last year by the UK Institute of Nanotechnology also found that most large pharma companies have yet to identify the `killer application' that would justify large amounts of R&D funding.

Although most multinationals in the UK recognise the importance of nanotechnology to future innovation and profitability, few have yet to formulate a coherent short-medium term strategy, and linkage with the research base is tentative, the report adds.

And in 2003, a survey on business intentions for nanotechnology found that firms were still unsure of how the technology would fit with their business models, so were keeping a watching brief before committing resources.

Working together
Despite these findings, big pharma is slowly coming round to the idea and, as in niche product development, the pharma giants are leaving the R&D to the minnows.

One such minnow is US nanotechnology firm Quantum Dot Corporation. The company has developed Qdot nanocrystals - nano-scale crystals that shine brightly when excited by a light source, helping researchers and surgeons to observe their work with greater sensitivity and longevity than current imaging techniques.

The technique has been adopted by AstraZeneca, Genentech and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and was also named best nanotechnology product of 2003 by Nanotechnology Now.

GSK has also struck a deal with Japanese company NanoCarrier to carry out exploratory research studies on a GSK compound using NanoCarrier's micellar nanoparticle technology.

Rajaram Sankaran, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, believes that collaboration is the way forward for nanotechnology research: Forming synergistic collaborations with drug and medical device companies represents one of the most obvious routes for achieving multi-disciplinary proficiency.

Initially, such partnerships could take the form of joint marketing efforts, paving the way for nanomedical companies to independently handle all stages from R&D to commercialisation in the long run.

Taking notice
However, big pharma is starting to sit up and take notice of nanotech. In the US, Baxter Healthcare works closely with the Northwestern University's Institute for Bioengineering and Nanoscience in Advanced Medicine on nanoscience projects.

Closer to home, Irish pharma group Elan has developed its own NanoCrystal Technology that can enable formulation and improve compound activity and final product characteristics. Through a research deal with US pharma firm Wyeth, the immunosuppressant Rapamune (sirolimus) became the first marketed product that incorporated the technology. A further product has since been launched in the US through a deal with pharma firm Merck.

Unilever has also voiced its commitment to the technology and believes that developments based on nanotechnology could become of critical importance within the next few years. Competition with our rivals is fierce and the similarity of products they develop makes any kind of innovative product advantage crucial, the company says.

In Europe, the future of nanotechnology looks bright. The UK government has pledged tighter regulation and further research into the area, while other European governments have promised, to assess potential opportunities for better healthcare through nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology may be a tiny application in the big world of pharmaceuticals, but pharma companies need to start embracing the technology in order to stay one step ahead of the competition. After all, good things come in small packages.

The Author
Beth Brooks is web journalist at

2nd September 2008


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