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Nanotech heads to Hollywood: Michael Crichton's latest novel Prey will propel nanoscientists into the limelight. It may benefit them. Or it may not. (Articles).

When Antonella Badia successfully made the first gram of her gold nanoparticles in a lab downtown Montreal in 1994, she knew she had hot stuff in her hands. So did her mentor and research director Bruce Lennox, a chemistry professor at McGill University.

Yet neither scientist could ever guess that these same nanoparticles would one day inspire Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton to pen his most recent novel, Prey. The novel, released on November 25, 2002, is set to become a movie within the coming months -- 20th Century Fox bought the film rights for nearly $5 million - and nanoparticles may eventually become as popular as dinosaurs.

Michael Crichton's novel propels us into a world of science fiction where manmade nanoparticles, endowed with artificial intelligence, accidentally spread into the environment and end up 'infecting' human bodies. These nanoparticles arm its victims with jamais-vu lethal body-enhancing technologies. Crichton's story is built on hero--victim scenario, or predator--prey mode, spiced up with sexual intrigue.

The author's novel is gripping and captures the reader's imagination. Crichton's vision on the interaction of nanoparticles with humans and the environment is fictional, though. "I have worked with nanoparticles for years and they haven't taken me over," Antonella Badia says, laughingly.

Antonella Badia, MCIC, and Bruce Lennox, MCIC, entered the emerging field of nanoparticles in the mid-1990s, when they found that tiny gold nanoparticles -- several thousand times smaller than red blood cells -- have unique chemical and physical properties. The news from their lab and others in Britain and America spread quickly. Subsequently, many scientists worldwide realized the tremendous potential of metal and semi-conductor nanoparticles as a new class of materials.

Determined to contribute to this exciting endeavor, many chemists rolled up their sleeves and went to work. In the midst of the frenzy some discoveries found applications in commercial products. For instance, nanoparticles are currently being used in sunscreens and anti-wrinkle creams, as well as in the wax that makes skis slide smoothly.

But the best is yet to come. Within the next decade, nanoparticle-based devices may be used on a routine basis to improve medical diagnostic and treatments of diseases such as cancer, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to increase the capacity of computer magnetic storage devices. Nanoparticles are at the cusp of a scientific revolution -- nothing less.

Antonella Badia is now an award-winning professor of chemistry at the Universite de Montreal. She recently received a Research Innovation Award and a Cottrell Scholar Award, highlighting her creative potential and her excellence in research and teaching. Just as her mentor Bruce Lennox has been doing over the last 15 years, Badia is in turn inspiring the next generations of students who will take over the great scientific challenges and improve our quality of life.

Sadly though, when it comes to covering scientific breakthroughs, our local and national science reporters are more inclined to quote American researchers. "Canadian science success stories lack exposure; they're poorly advertised," Badia laments.

This reality has dramatic effect on student recruitment to the sciences. In a recent report, Industry Canada acknowledged that a shortage of skilled scientists may affect the competitiveness of the nation. To alleviate this problem, the federal government intends to increase the admission of master's and PhD students by an average of 5 per cent per year through 2010.

Surely, research funding agencies, such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Fonds Quebecois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies, also have an important role to play in the discussion and dissemination of scientific breakthroughs. "Giving visibility and credit to the work being done in Canada would be a good way to meet this target," Badia says.

We must not remain idle. Should we let Michael Crichton be the only one spinning science for his own ends? That's certainly not what scientists, governmental officials or investors may want. Crichton's alarmist vision in Prey is likely to foster fear among the public. That was the case when the movie 'Jurassic Park' was released -- at a time when the ethical and social consequences of genetic engineering were being fiercely debated.

The hoopla around Prey will propel scientists into the limelight once again. It may benefit them. Or it may not. It all depends on scientists' ability to openly discuss the consequences of their research on human health and the environment. That's what the public will want to know when nanoparticles hit the multiplex screens in Prey.

Emmanuelle Boubour is a post-doctoral fellow in Professor Richard F. Smalley's group at Rice University, Houston, TX. Her research interests include the impact of emerging technologies on society. She did her PhD in Chemistry with Professor Lennox at McGill University.

Reviews of pop culture and their relevance to scientists are welcomed by the editorial office of ACCN. Please contact Dinah Laprairie, ACCN editor, to discuss your idea. Email: dlaprairie@cheminst.co; or tel: 613-232-6252, ext. 228
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Author:Boubour, Emmanuelle
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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