Nanomedicine–emerging or re-emerging ethical issues? A discussion of four ethical themes

Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 10 (2):173-184 (2007)
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Nanomedicine plays a prominent role among emerging technologies. The spectrum of potential applications is as broad as it is promising. It includes the use of nanoparticles and nanodevices for diagnostics, targeted drug delivery in the human body, the production of new therapeutic materials as well as nanorobots or nanoprotheses. Funding agencies are investing large sums in the development of this area, among them the European Commission, which has launched a large network for life-sciences related nanotechnology. At the same time government agencies as well as the private sector are putting forward reports of working groups that have looked into the promises and risks of these developments. This paper will begin with an introduction to the central ethical themes as identified by selected reports from Europe and beyond. In a next step, it will analyse the most frequently invoked ethical concerns–risk assessment and management, the issues of human identity and enhancement, possible implications for civil liberties (e.g. nanodevices that might be used for covert surveillance), and concerns about equity and fair access. Although it seems that the main ethical issues are not unique to nanotechnologies, the conclusion will argue against shrugging them off as non-specific items that have been considered before in the context of other biomedical technologies, such as gene therapy or xenotransplantation. Rather, the paper will call on ethicists to help foster a rational, fair and participatory discourse on the different potential applications of nanotechnologies in medicine, which can form the basis for informed and responsible societal and political decisions



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