Towards a biopolitical characterisation of nanobiotechnologies

One of the aims of this research and development phase of the project is to characterise nanobiotech in order to work toward an understanding of their biopolitical potentialities. In addition to my existing relationships with nanoscientstist at the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility at RMIT, I have recently been talking with Professor Killugudi Swaminathan Iyer at the University of Western Australia. He has published some extensive characterisation work that I draw upon here along with the research done by my collaborator Professor Vipul Bansal and his team at the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility at RMIT.

To bring in thinking around biopolitics it’s important to understand the different types of nanobiotechnologies. One think that struck me about the whole Genetically Modified Organism backlash was that the public largely took GMOs to be a single technology that they were then for or against. In fact “genetic modification” is an umbrella term over multiple different technologies, and therefore their benefits and risks are different, some more benign and well-known, others potentially more severe. I’m still learning about the policy side of how nanotechnologies are regulated (or not) but it strikes me that perhaps this is an issue for policy-making of molecular and sub-molecular technologies too — that they must make some sort of broader categorisations to reduce the sheer amount of work developing policy. It is also clearly a problem to take a general stance of for or against nanotechnologies that, as we will see below, have many different actions, and that that nanotechnologies and nanobiotechnologies both refer to a broad range of different technologies.

Their only overarching similarity is that they are designed and operate at a scale of 0.1-100nm. Some may be developed by materials scientists interested in materials to make tiny electronics, and others made by chemists looking to enhance the activity of drugs in the human body. Given this, in thinking about speculative conceptual, cultural and biopolitical influences, I am working toward knowledge of how nanobiotechnologies act in the body, and which generalisations we can and can’t make about the different classes of technology.

So nanobiotechnologies have the following general uses (and all of these categories cover multiple technologies):

Drug & gene delivery applications

Nanoscale frameworks can de designed to carry drugs or genes to specific sites within the body. These can protect drugs from clearance and disintegration prior to reaching the desired site of action. These might take the form of nanocapsules, nanospheres, dendrimers, micelles, liposomes or Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs). These are engineered, through the choice between the above structures, and their coatings to pass through biological barriers and travel to specific sites in the body. See Killugudi Swaminathan Iyer. In the case of genes, these can be delivered to cells, absorbed and replicated by the cell to produce the protein that they code for. See Ravi Shukla and my work with ZIF-8. Some researchers are exploring this area to provide needle-less vaccinations.

Sensing and diagnostic applications
This class of nanotechnology is largely based around nanoparticles of different sizes and shapes that are used in systems that create a colour change or other visually perceptible measure in the presence of a pathogenic biological marker, for example excess glucose in the urine. See Vipul Bansal.

Imaging applications 

Nanoparticles can be designed to enhance current medical imaging. They might be designed to have magnetic and radioactive properties for example to allow the crossover of two different imaging techniques, allowing specificity and higher resolution than with the techniques used individually.

Medical implants and micro-prostheses 

I mention this class here as it connects to well-debated ethical issue of human enhancement. At this stage nanotechnology is seen by the medical field as having potential to enhance larger prosthetics such as pacemakers, or to help bone attach to metal prostheses.


Most common in this category are silver nanoparticles that can kill bacteria by punching holes in their walls. It is currently being used in cleaning products and socks. There is concern that its unregulated use may lead to microbial resistance in the same way we are seeing with antibiotics.

Genetic detection tools 

Gold nanoparticles are used as nucleic acid probes (for both DNA and RNA). This allows for  highly specific identification and locating of genes for downstream techniques such as gene editing.

Regenerative medicine 

The holy grail of nano medicine would be to engineer the rebuilding of damaged cells and tissues at an atomic and molecular level, for example, for bone and neural reengineering, or the growth of organs for implantation.

As I will consider in my next post, there seems to be a lot of fear around nanotechnology in the body (rightly so), and part of this comes down to their size and ability to cross barriers in the body. Although there is still a long way to go to understand and regulate nanomaterials there is scientific research on which biological barriers in the body might be traversed by nanoparticles.

Blood brain barrier 
While the blood brain barrier is a highly effective barrier against most substances, in theory nanotechnologies can be engineered to traverse this layer. In order to enter they must be covered with a lipophilic (fat-loving) coating. Research is being done on this route for the drug delivery of doxorubicin for the treatment of brain tumors and other drugs for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders.

While nanoparticles have not yet shown to be able to penetrate in tact skin, they can enter hair follicles and this route is being used by researchers looking at nanoparticle-bound drug delivery to the surrounding skin.

Olfactory Mucous Membrane

Compared with the blood brain barrier, this membrane gives much more direct access to the brain and concerns have been raised around how easily nanoparticles might enter the brain via this route. For this reason nanoparticles are used within fume hoods to protect cineasts from inhalation. It has been shown that carbon black (at a size of under 100nm) can travel across the olfactory muscous membrane and into the forebrain.

Gastro-Intesinal Tract

Our gastro-intestinal tract is highly specialised for the uptake of different molecules (food), their digestion, and the delivery of the nutrients via the blood to the organs. There is also the possibility for nanomaterials to cross the gastro-intestinal tract barrier. According to present law in the EU, the producers are obligated to list all synthetic components in food. Since 2014, in the EU, all food additives in the nanometre size range have to be specifically labelled with the addition of “(nano)” in the list of ingredients. The large area of the intestines allows the uptake of many low molecular weight substances such as nutrients, vitamins, and certain drugs but also of poisons and other unwanted materials. It is assumed that about 1012 to 1014 inorganic nanoparticles per day reach the gastro-intestinal tract via food intake.


The air-blood barrier in the lungs is designed for gaseous exchange, and the chance of nanoparticles entering our bodies via this route is relatively high. Nanomaterials are used in a variety of different products such as sunscreen, surface coatings, paint, or textiles. Inhalation of these nanomaterials is possible during production but also during the products’ usage and disposal. Several medical diagnostic or therapeutic products are made of or contain nanoparticles to either directly treat the lung or other diseases via the lung as a point of entry.

Placental barrier

Studies on nanotechnology and placental permeability are rare but again, due to permeability by design, it is assumed that this barrier could be easily crossed by nanomaterials and so we should exercise concern about potential nanotoxicity to developing embryos.

In most of these cases the potential benefits of therapeutic delivery is clear. But the challenge with discussing the ethics, and broader social implications of these technologies is the simultaneity of positive and negative effects of the technology (the same technology might have positive effects for an individual and negative effects for a community, alternatively, the effects of one technology may be positive for one person and negative for another). No-one can ethically argue against the benefits of better cancer therapies, however, the attitude that everything built for better health outcomes is beyond debate or critique, is dangerous. It makes us loathe to voice the potential risks to our autonomy, our health and our broader culture and society, and more likely to blindly accept new technologies. We can see the detrimental effects of this, and the admissions of this lack of broader consideration in social media use (documented through interviews in The Social Dilemma (2020)). With every new suite of technologies we have a chance to discuss and consider the technology from all perspectives. The outcome is unlikely to be a black and white approval or ban, but such discussion may lead to more nuanced modes of management, regulation and use. 

Heading into the creative production phase of this work, I will work with as many people as possible, scientists and the public, to collectively perform these kinds of considerations and discussions. If they’re not happening enough in spaces of governance, then they can happen in spaces of art. I earlier asked if art can be an ethical or moral centre for science. Maybe the question is better posed: will art be an ethical or moral centre for science? If we act on and respond to these issues, then the answer to both questions, is yes.

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