Little Things Could Mean a Lot
By Mark Baard
02:00 AM Mar. 10, 2004 PT
BOSTON -- Nestlé is screaming for smoother ice cream. Scientists working in the field of nanotechnology are helping them make it.
The Swiss sweets company was among hundreds meeting this week at the 2004 Nanotechnology Conference and Trade Show.
The company was joined by scientists who presented their visions for nanotubes, nanoparticles and quantum dots, which may soon revolutionize the fields of medicine and food production, the scientists said.
Complex machines that are nanometers in length are far off in the future. But simple materials on the nano scale are already finding their way into sensors and tools for food and medical applications.
Nestlé believes that researchers may soon be able to use nanotechnology to make artificial noses and mouths for tasting foods, and to make packaging that prevents microbial growth.
Nanoparticles, particles whose size is measured in nanometers, could also help Nestlé control the texture, flavor release and rate at which nutrients are absorbed by the body (a process called bioavailability), said Michel Martin, head of food colloids in the department of food science at Nestlé.
Nestlé researchers are already trying to apply nanotechnology to the problem of ice cream.
While consumers regard ice cream as a delight, food scientists consider it to be an unruly foam, with highly mobile ingredients (with molecules of different sizes) that change consistency and ice up under varying conditions.
"Ice cream is a nightmare to control," said Martin.
But nanotechnology could make the molecules in ice cream more uniform in size, adding new meaning to the term consistency.
Martin would not discuss Nestlé's own ideas for improving its ice cream using nanotechnology.
Food scientists are not the only people with something to contribute to nanotechnology, which can be defined as the making and manipulating of materials on an atomic or molecular scale.
The National Institutes of Health said it plans to establish several nanomedicine centers as part of its NIH Roadmap.
The NIH nanomedicine centers will gather data about how cells and molecules work, and will develop engineering terms to describe their parts and processes.
Biologists, physicians, mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists will collaborate at the nanomedical centers. They will eventually develop new techniques to do everything from mapping animal genomes more efficiently to diagnosing and treating cancer without surgery, said Jeffery Schloss, co-chairman of the Nanomedicine Implementation Group at NIH.
But one leading researcher at the conference warned that promising nanotechnologies can be outwitted by natural biology.
University of Michigan researchers are building microscopic plastic molecules, called dendrimers, that bind with viruses and act as decoys for healthy cells. But the researchers were disappointed when the plastic decoys, which had shown promise for preventing influenza virus infection, failed to stop half of the world's known flu strains.
"No matter how elegant your solution is," said Dr. James Baker, director of the UM Center for Biologic Nanotechnology, "biology is always going to be more complicated."
Quantum dots, which Harvard Medical School researchers have used to map lymph glands in a pig, may eventually help doctors detect cancer cells earlier than is possible with current techniques. Doctors at Harvard have developed an imaging device for the operating room that causes the quantum dots to illuminate.
But quantum dots today are made from cadmium, mercury and other toxic substances, said Harvard assistant professor of medicine John Frangioni.
These materials," said Frangioni, "are not going near people anytime soon."
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