Federal government and U.S. industry scientists are forging ahead with plans to establish an international online forum for collaboration that aims to accelerate development of products with ultra-small dimensions while minimizing potential environmental, health, and safety risks. The collaboration will focus on the creation of critically needed nanotechnology standards for biomedical and health applications, including Standard Reference Materials and test methods.
Combining efforts of materials scientists and measurement laboratories with those of biological and medical researchers, the new Internet-linked "community of interest" will exploit Web 2.0-style social networking technologies for creating and sharing information, as well as deliberating over technical details. The initial focus will be on preliminary-stage development of standards for characterizing the structure and properties of engineered nanoscale materials—those with at least one feature measuring between 1 nanometer (nm) and 100 nm.
The concept for the Web-based collaboration was strongly endorsed during a recent international two-day workshop on Enabling Standards for Nanomaterial Characterization, hosted and co-sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Other cosponsors were the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, National Cancer Institute (NCI) and its Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory, with contributions from ASTM International. A prototype wiki—or collaborative Web site—was demonstrated by representatives of NCI's Advanced Biomedical Computing Center.
At the workshop, participants had reported mixed results in recent interlaboratory comparisons of physical and biological measurements on reference nanomaterials and other pretested samples. Pointing to the inconsistent results in these pilot "round robins," many participants called for a sustained collaboration to develop high-quality, validated and uniformly applied standards that ensure reliable measurement and test results.
"This consensus among the scientific community about what has to be done is really reassuring. I firmly believe we are on the right road now," said Kenneth Dawson, chair of the International Alliance for NanoEHS Harmonization and director of the Center for BioNano Interactions at University College Dublin.
Estimated to be $147 billion in 2007, the global market for nanotechnology-enabled products could top $3 trillion by 2015, according to the market research firm Lux Research. The large projected market, an increasingly diverse range of anticipated nanotechnology applications, and the wide variety of science and engineering fields working toward these applications have led to a growing need for different types of nanotechnology standards. In the United States and across the world, standards developing organizations (SDOs) are responding but according to industry, government and university scientists at the workshop, the overall response is not as effective or as coherent as the challenge requires.
"Engagement of the world's environmental, health and safety scientific expertise in standards development could well become a 'tragedy of the commons' in that we know standards will benefit the entire community, but there are a growing number of organizations tapping into this scientific expertise," said Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, which administers the federal National Nanotechnology Initiative. "This finite expertise might become so overly taxed that real progress will be hindered. A community-driven initiative makes sense. Collaborative Web sites look very promising as a means to enable sustained cooperation across nations and scientific disciplines."
The new online community of interest will concentrate on facilitating and streamlining the many back-and-forth technical deliberations that take place during the drafting of a standard—before it's submitted for formal approval by an SDO. Now undergoing further development at NCI, the nanotechnology standards wiki will enable instantaneous dissemination (as well as archiving) of drafts, discussions, votes and supporting materials. Wiki-related tools will help in organizing discussions, and SDOs will be able to tap this resource to expedite drafting and validating protocols before they enter the formal standards approval process.
"The lack of standardized methods has been a rate-limiting step in the translation of nanoparticle-based cancer therapies," said Piotr Grodzinski, director of NCI's Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer. "I commend this initiative for taking on streamlining nanomaterial characterization and its standardization."
Increased transparency in the standards development process also will facilitate cooperation in interlaboratory testing to determine the reproducibility and repeatability of methods. For NIST, input from the online community of interest will help to set priorities for developing reference materials used to calibrate instruments that make nanoscale measurements and validate testing protocols.
NCI and its partners expect a fully operational and vetted version of the site to be publicly available by early 2009.
"This is a new paradigm for getting business done in the fast-moving area of nanotechnology," said NIST materials scientist Vince Hackley. "The proposed wiki could serve as a neutral space for diverse organizations and efforts to intersect."
For more information on the NIST workshop, go to https://www.nist.gov/news-events/events/2008/10/workshop-enabling-standards-nanomaterial-characterization, or contact Vince Hackley (vince.hackley [at] nist.gov) or Marty Fritts (frittsmj [at] mail.nih.gov).