The pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors increasingly employ nanotechnology’s unique properties to solve diagnostic, R&D and formulation problems. But a new survey, published in Nature Nanotechnology, highlights numerous communication gaps between pharma/biotech and the general public over this multi-billion dollar platform.

Even the advent of dramatic medical advances may not be enough to allay the public’s concerns. And, unusually among emerging technologies, more scientists in the field express concerns about specific risks - including new health problems - than the public.

Dietram Scheufele, Professor of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin, and colleagues conducted a telephone survey of 1,015 adults from the general US population and a mail survey of 363 nanotechnology scientists and engineers. Overall, scientists were more optimistic about the benefits and less concerned about the risks of nanotechnology than the public.

For example, 92% of scientists and 64% of the public thought that nanotechnology would lead to better treatment of diseases. Furthermore, 83% and 49% respectively thought nanotech would lead to a cleaner environment. However, 44% of the public felt nanotechnology could lead to loss of privacy compared with 30% of scientists. For loss of jobs, the figures were 38% and 6% respectively.

Nevertheless, more scientists expressed concerns than the public in two areas: the potential for more pollution (19% and 14% respectively) and new health problems (31% and 21% respectively). “This makes nanotechnology unusual among emerging technologies in that scientists working directly with the technology express stronger concerns about specific potential risk areas than the general public does”, the authors write.

Communicate early
“The message for the pharma and biotech sectors is simple: communicate, and communicate early,” Professor Scheufele told Pharmatimes Clinical. “What we have seen for issues, such as biotech or even stem cell research, is that scientists did not participate in public discourse about the societal implications of these technologies – both positive and negative – early on."

As a result, Professor Scheufele continued, "interest groups and other players in the policy arena had ample time to frame the debate, provide information to the public that favoured their respective views, and suggest policy solutions. By the time scientists entered the debate, frames like 'Frankenfood' had long been established and policy makers were contemplating regulations on federal funding of stem cell research.”

The research presents both good news and bad news for pharma and biotech, Professor Scheufele suggested. “The bad news is that scientists continue to do a sub-par job in communicating with the public in a way [that the latter] can understand and that addresses their often non-scientific concerns,” he said. “The good news is that the public is very open to communication from and with scientists. Our surveys showed that nano-scientists – in both industry and academia – were among the handful of groups that the public trusted most for their information about nanotechnologies. Regulatory agencies and governmental bodies ranked much lower.”

The study revealed both communication gaps between scientists and the public, and “tremendous opportunities for scientists to close” these gaps, Professor Scheufele added. “For pharma and biotech, the lessons from stem cell research can be transferred directly to nano: engage the public on issues that they care about — both in terms of risks and benefits,” he commented.

“Even major medical breakthroughs or other applications with great scientific promise will not be enough to overcome fears and moral concerns about emerging technologies among the general public, especially when it comes to health and environmental safety. And all communication about these issues needs to be in a language that the public can understand and contextualised along two questions: why do we need more science in this area, and why is it good for society?”

The Freedonia Group estimates that sales of all nanotechnology medical products and of nanomedicines in particular will reach $110.5 billion and $82 billion in 2016. Cientifica estimates that the market for drug delivery systems employing nanotechnology will grow from $3.39 billion today to $26 billion and $220 billion by 2012 and 2015, respectively.