Archived Viewpoints

About This Technology

Nanobiotechnology is a subset of nanotechnology—an area encompassing research and technology developments involving structures with at least one characteristic dimension that measures at length scales typically below 100 nanometers to create new materials, devices, and systems. As novel properties in materials become accessible at the nanoscale, nanotechnology's greatest promise will come in researchers' ability to exploit such properties to create materials and structures with novel or enhanced features and functions and to assemble these materials and substructures with other components into larger devices and systems. Through its convergence with biotechnology, nanotechnology opens up new avenues of scientific research, technology development, and business opportunity. In particular, the study and the control of nanoscale phenomena and materials offer the biological sciences novel functionalities and improved performance in materials in established application areas such as medical diagnostics and drug treatments. In the longer term, biology offers nanotechnologists unprecedented opportunities to explore, learn from, and use functional nanostructures that are inherent in living organisms to inform the design and development of entirely new classes of techniques and devices that could result in disruptive change in established fields such as health care. This potential for new insights into biological processes and nature's ability for self-assembly generates great interest in the field of nanobiotechnology.

The immediate opportunity from the application of nanotechnology in the biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences involves the creation of materials and devices that interface with biology at the molecular scale with a high degree of specificity. Today, nanobiotechnology's greatest impact is in the development of bioanalytical research-technology platforms, such as nanoscale labels or tags to improve signal generation and detection in biological assays. Leading medical applications include the use of nanomaterial technologies as medical-device coatings and diagnostic contrast agents, sensing components in nanoscale diagnostics devices, and advanced drug-delivery systems. New enabling-material technologies are also finding their way into consumer personal-care products. Improved tools to characterize, control, and manipulate the structure and function of living matter at the nanoscale could also inspire biology-based approaches to technology development and fabrication. For example, in medicine, researchers hope to synthesize new molecules, direct the self-assembly of individual biomolecules, and create molecular-scale multifunctional tools for in vivo sensing, diagnostics, analysis, therapy design, and drug delivery. Nanobiotechnology opportunities also span food, cosmetics, energy, and electronics applications. For example, improved understanding of nature's processes could facilitate the development of molecular-scale biobased fabrication approaches for industrial materials and electronics.

Nanobiotechnology's potential for new business opportunities has been a key driver of research activity and investor interest, but technical and market uncertainties will temper the pace of development and lengthen the time frame in which opportunities materialize and commercialization occurs. Furthermore, the functional benefits of nanotechnology—such as the ability for nanoparticles to enter cells, cross membranes, and traverse the blood-brain barrier—could be its undoing. Important in any commercialization effort will therefore be the development of an infrastructure to support the testing, approval, and sale of nanobiotechnology products. All organizations should at least consider the broader implications of nanobiotechnology in their research planning, try to identify new business opportunities unique to the nanoscale, and assess the potential for cross-linking with other technology areas to offer breakthrough solutions in various application areas. This Technology Map highlights the technology building blocks of nanobiotechnology research and applications, identifies the key parameters affecting the commercial development of nanobiotechnology and its products, and pinpoints the technology and market issues that companies should monitor to understand the direction and pace of development in the research and business environments.