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Business - Investor's Business Daily
Nanotech Boom Expected To Force Legal Scrambling
Tue Sep 30,10:06 AM ET

By Doug Tsuruoka

Imagine a robot that's 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

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The device would be tiny enough to slip into a human egg and alter its genetic code. That would let it design "improved" humans who are smarter and resist disease.

Such a robot is one of the many promises of nanotechnology - the science of very small things. The potential is huge for the emerging field. But the legal and ethical issues stirred by nanotechnology are enormous as well.

Lawmakers are closely watching these developments. That means as nanotechnology evolves, rules and regulations could follow.

"Law always develops behind new technology," said Mark Grossman, who chairs the technology law group at Becker & Poliakoff PA in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It's in the nature of the beast, and nanotechnology is no different."

The National Science Foundation (news - web sites) predicts that nanotech could generate annual sales of $1 trillion by 2015. And Congress this month is finalizing items in the president's 2004 budget that would give almost $1 billion to nanotech research.

The past three years, researchers at companies such as IBM Corp. and Intel Corp. have made strides in using magnetism or other forces to form linelike patterns on a molecular level. That could lead to molecule-sized chips, which would make it possible to build supercomputers no bigger than a wristwatch. Or there could be nano robots the size of bacteria that do the work of red blood cells.

In the last year alone, scientists have developed molecular motors, atom-sized switches and nano devices that detect proteins.

As nanotech moves from science fiction to reality, some say the laws surrounding it are lagging behind.

Grossman compares laws governing nanotech to where Internet law was in 1995. They're virtually nonexistent.

Over the last year, analysts say, nanotech has figured in state statutes approved in Indiana, California and Florida. Nearly all the laws dealt with promoting nanotechnology in those states.

Nanotech will inevitably run into legal issues, just like Internet gambling and music piracy.

Grossman says most businesses aren't aware how nanotech will effect key sectors of the U.S. economy. Impacted fields will include information technology, medicine, manufacturing, advanced materials and environmental control.

The laws that have covered products and technology since the Industrial Revolution may not apply to nanotech.

Some of the legal questions include:

-Can you patent an atomic or molecular structure?

 

-How do you protect an atom or molecule-sized device from being illegally copied?

-How do you regulate and tax trade in devices too small to be seen?

-Should nano devices that alter human genes or cells be controlled?

-Should government limit how nanotech is used in surveillance or other security technology?

-What health, safety and product liability issues are raised by devices and processes too small to be seen by the naked eye?

Some legislators think the government should prepare now for such legal issues.

Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., introduced a bill earlier this year that would create a national board to advise the president on nanotech policy issues.

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Science. Washington, meanwhile, continues to pour money into nanotech research.

President Bush (news - web sites)'s 2004 budget calls for $849 million in funds for the National Nanotechnology Initiative. That's a 10% boost from 2003. The House in May passed another nanotech funding bill totaling $2.36 billion the next three years.

The money will be used by a host of federal agencies to pursue nanotech research.

Current federal outlays on a yearly basis for nanotech research represent a 600%-plus boost over 1997.

When government and the private sector invest billions in emerging fields like nanotech, they rarely think of legal consequences, Grossman says. That's especially true in cases where more than one party teams up to nurture a technology.

"A lot of the contracting that needs to be done is infantile at best, and illiterate at worst," Grossman said. "They don't take time to consider the legal and business issues that are confronting them. They don't take time to negotiate clear understandings between the parties."

Some say the gap between nanotech and current laws isn't that great.

T.S. Twibell, an associate attorney with the Kansas City, Mo., law firm Kurlbaum Stoll Seaman Mustoe & McCrummen, writes about nanotech legal issues.

He says existing federal and local laws are adequate to cover nanotech without serious revision.

Laws already on the books relating to genetic engineering, for instance, could be used to cover nanotech.

But such laws may fall short if there are big advances in nanotech, Twibell says. "That's the time when we may need ethical or other laws to address the peculiarities of nanotechnology," Twibell said.

Legal and ethical questions raised by nanotech shouldn't be taken lightly, says Ted Schettler, science director for the Science and Environmental Health Network, a group of doctors and scientists who advise on environment and health policy.

"Nano particles may have unique biochemical properties that we should know about before we turn them loose in the world of medicine, consumer products and other things," said Schettler, a medical doctor.

One big question, Schettler says, is how nano devices will interact with human tissue. It still isn't clear if there will be adverse effects. It also isn't known if nano devices will enter parts of the body that they're not supposed to, Schettler says.

If you think such issues are purely theoretical, think again, says Don Eigler, a top IBM nanotech researcher. Nanotech isn't decades away, he says; it's already here.

Simple nano devices are already used in some types of chip and data storage technology, Eigler notes.

More advances could be just around the corner. "In science, things just happen," he said. "You just can't predict when somebody is going to have a real breakthrough idea."

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