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Smoke, Mirrors and Nanotechnology

By Andrew Stapleton

Alternative health practitioners are quick to offer a variety of untested therapies. Nanotechnology is yet another in the list.

The term “nanotechnology” conjures images of extremely tiny robots that are swallowed, treat people from the inside and then self-destruct into excretable components. Unfortunately, reality falls short of that expectation.

Nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary research field that attempts to manipulate the nanoscale structure of a material. “Nano” is a prefix meaning one-billionth. To put that in perspective, a “nano” of the distance between Sydney and Melbourne (716 km) is 0.72 mm or about the thickness of a human fingernail. Imagine trying to manicure someone’s fingernails from the international space station while they sit on Earth – that is the equivalent of what nanotechnologists try to do.

Common sense rarely wins in the nanodomain. Strange and unexpected properties of otherwise uninteresting materials are regularly reported, and seem to offer just the right combination of the fascinating and counter-intuitive that proponents of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) need to sell nano-related products.

Nanotechnology has genuinely contributed to everyday commercial products; Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nano­particles in sunscreens absorb UV light. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles have also been used for light-activated self-cleaning of cotton fibres, so you never have to worry about being a messy eater, and self-cleaning in electronic devices, so you needn’t get up on the roof to clean your solar panels.

On the less useful side, colloidal silver, which is a solution of silver nanoparticles, has been used for generations to treat a myriad of afflictions. Unfortunately, there has never been any evidence to support the efficacy of these small petanque balls for any medical condition.

However, if your medical condition is a desire to be the same colour as a Smurf, colloidal silver is the answer that you have been seeking. When taken orally, silver nanoparticles become deposited under the skin and darken when exposed to sunlight. In extreme cases this results in argyria, a condition where long-term users of colloidal silver develop a blue hue to their skin. For a full Smurf transformation, however, users must provide their own hat and smurfing attitude.

The “nano” term has been much abused in the world of nanopharmacology, including rebranding homeopathy in an obvious attempt to shed the stigma associated with the ultra-dilution of active chemicals for a supposed therapeutic effect.

On the more complicated side of things, a product named double helix water (tinyurl.com/otxmgrb) uses the mystique of the nanodomain to try to convince customers that they are consuming unique helix-shaped “stable water clusters”. The proponents claim that it is much better than “normal water” at rehydrating and maintaining health.

Surprisingly, there is even a peer-reviewed paper arguing for the existence of stable water clusters (tinyurl.com/plghve5). The paper uses atomic force microscopy images and other nano-imaging techniques to try to convince readers of the presence of nano-helices . Unsurprisingly, this paper falls short in many ways; the authors do not provide a reasonable explanation of whether or not these would actually exist in water as it is supplied, and their conclusion completely ignores the contribution of any potential contaminants that they may be observing.

A strong rebuttal, published 4 years after the initial paper (tinyurl.com/pzmybtn), met a relatively unscientific response from the original paper’s authors (tinyurl.com/nuqr7mq) and has been ignored in subsequent pitches made to the consumer. It seems that using the fact it has been published in a journal is too good a marketing spin to resist, regardless of whether it is widely disputed. This is a great example of how nanotechnology can be used to pull the wool over people’s eyes, despite the claims being easily falsifiable.

I suspect that as nanotechnology is increasingly thrust into the mainstream, CAM will rely on the smoke and mirrors provided by the counter-intuitive properties of the vanishingly small to convince people to part with their money.

Andrew Stapleton is a Research Associate at Flinders University in the Centre for Nanoscale Science and Technology.