Safer Nanotech

Although so tiny they are invisible, it’s easy to see that nanomaterials are becoming a big thing. There are odor-fighting socks and antibacterial dishrags impregnated with silver nanoparticles. Nano-sized titanium dioxide can be found in a long list of food and consumer products, including salad dressing, cake frosting, toothpaste and sunscreen. The vibrantly colored screen of the Kindle Fire can be attributed to quantum dots, a.k.a. nano-scale crystals of semiconductors such as cadmium selenide. And the list goes on.

Nanomaterials are tiny by definition, measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers along one or more dimension. (By comparison, a human hair is approximately 100,000 nanometers in width.) At this scale, they possess unique physical and chemical properties that make them useful for a wide array of applications, including consumer products, environmental remediation and medicine. Yet there are many unanswered questions about their safety.

“We don’t know a lot about the toxicity of nanomaterials, and we have much to learn about the potential risks associated with the release of these materials into the environment,” says Joel Pedersen, Rothermel Bascom Professor of Soil Science at CALS.

Pedersen is part of a collaborative, multidisciplinary research team exploring these unknowns as part of the UW–Madison-based Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, which was founded in 2012 with support from the National Science Foundation. Center scientists are working to understand how nanomaterials interact with living systems and the environment, with the practical goal of developing the insights needed to start creating nanomaterials that are designed to be more environmentally benign. This includes re-engineering them to make them safer, if needed.

With expertise in chemistry, biology and engineering, Pedersen is in charge of the Center’s efforts to develop laboratory models to assess the biological impacts of nanomaterials. While he has done some experiments in zebrafish, Pedersen’s work for the Center focuses on innovative, non-biological approaches, including creating “artificial cell surfaces” in the lab.

“Our intent is to get down to the molecular level,” Pedersen explains. “What are the rules that govern how these materials interact with biological systems? In particular, how do these particles interact with cell membranes?”

One way Pedersen’s group makes artificial cell surfaces is by depositing lipid vesicles on a special quartz crystal sensor until the vesicles spontaneously rupture and then fuse to form a lipid bilayer—the basic structure of a cell membrane—on the sensor’s surface.

When electricity is applied to the sensor, it causes the system to vibrate at a particular frequency. Next, Pedersen’s team applies nanomaterials to the artificial cell surface. The sensor can detect subtle changes in the frequency of the vibration, yielding clues about the interaction between the material and the membrane.

By combining the results of this approach with others, Pedersen is finding that some nanoparticles, by virtue of their unique physical and chemical properties, seem to be able to extract lipids from the cell surface.

“Our results are consistent with the idea that these nanoparticles are grabbing lipids out of the membrane and acquiring a lipid coating when they come in contact with a cell,” explains Pedersen.

This cell membrane-disrupting behavior is a concern for the health of humans and animals. And while Pedersen’s team hasn’t observed this behavior in models of bacterial cell surfaces, there are other, broader concerns about the impacts of nanomaterials on microbial communities in the environment.

“Eukaryotes are our main focus, but there is some concern that nanomaterials in the environment can alter microbial community compositions. At present, we don’t know to what extent such changes could be problematic,” says Pedersen.

The information gained from Pedersen’s research will help inform the work of other scientists in the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology who focus on tweaking nanoparticles to make them safer.

“Ultimately, the goal is to redesign nanomaterials to minimize their adverse effects, or find better ways to embed them in materials so they aren’t released into the environment,” Pedersen says.

CRISPR: The Promise and the Peril

DIETRAM SCHEUFELE, a CALS professor of life sciences communication, serves on a national panel examining the implications of human genome editing.

The committee, appointed late last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, is examining the clinical, ethical, legal and social implications of the emerging technology. Genome editing holds great medical promise but also poses risks of off-target genetic alterations and raises fears it could irrevocably alter the human germline.

Led by UW–Madison law professor Alta Charo and MIT biologist Richard Hynes, the committee will specifically advise on questions about how risks should be quantified and whether some aspects of the technology should or should not go forward.

The ability to “edit” genes to target genetic defects became a much more plausible process with the advent of a technology called CRISPR (an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which can be used to precisely target and cut portions of a DNA sequence.

Controversy arose last year when a Chinese scientific team used CRISPR genome editing on non-viable human embryos. The experiment produced a number of “off-target events” that altered unintended parts of the genome.

Scheufele has published extensively in the areas of public opinion, political communication and public attitudes toward emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, synthetic biology, stem cell research, nuclear energy, and genetically modified organisms. Web of Science lists Scheufele’s publications among the 1 percent most-cited articles in the fields of general social science and plant and animal science. Scheufele also serves on two other committees for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: a committee on “The Science of Science Communication: A Research Agenda,” and the Division on Earth and Life Studies (DELS) Advisory Committee.

What’s the focus of your panel?

The committee that I serve on deals with human gene editing research and its potential applications. That includes potential future uses that could alter the human germline, which means that edited genes would be passed on to subsequent generations as part of the human gene pool.

But of course there are a lot of applications of gene editing techniques in agriculture and the life sciences, with the attempts to use genetically modified male mosquitoes to combat the spread of the Zika virus being just one recent example.

What are the potential dangers?

Identifying potential problems or concerns is part of the committee’s charge, and our report will work very carefully through both the scientific complexities of the technology as well as ethical, regulatory or political challenges that might emerge. Many of these challenges are focused on specific applications, such as germline editing. Once germline alterations are introduced into the human population, some have argued, they might be difficult to reverse and to contain within a single community or even country.

In many ways, the benefits are much more clear-cut, especially when it comes to helping parents whose genome puts their biological children at risk of inheriting certain diseases. Many patient advocacy groups are especially excited about the potential for medical breakthroughs in this arena.

What is the charge of your study committee? Are there specific deliverables, and what is the timeline?

The National Academies gave the committee a fairly detailed Statement of Task that can be found on our committee’s web page [link provided below]. In short, we will examine the state of the science of human gene editing as well as the ethical, legal and social implications of its applications in biomedical research and medicine.

Our work actually follows a pretty tight timeline that includes a number of additional meetings and informationgathering sessions. Most of the committee deliberations are open to the public and webcast by the National Academies. Once complete, the draft report will be vetted in a very stringent review procedure. There also have been and will continue to be numerous opportunities for formal public input, including on the draft report. If everything goes according to plan, the report will be released in fall 2016.

What role will you play on it as a communication scientist? What expertise do you bring to the table?

Human gene editing shares a number of characteristics with other recent scientific breakthroughs. One of them is an extremely fast bench-to-bedside transition. In other words, the time it takes to translate basic research into clinical or even market applications is shorter than it has been in the past. New gene editing technologies such as CRISPR provide us with faster, cheaper and more accurate tools for gene editing. But that also means that we as a society must have many of the ethical, legal and social debates surrounding gene editing at the same time that we are developing potential applications.

That is why more and more scientists are calling for what Alan Leshner, former CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has described as an “honest, bidirectional dialogue” between the scientific community and the public. Interestingly, the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 legislatively mandated public engagement through “regular and ongoing public discussions.” So the idea is not new, and researchers in the Department of Life Science Communication (LSC) at CALS were in fact involved in two long-term NSF center grants examining the societal impacts of nanotechnology and ways of building a better public dialogue. As a result, much of the research teaching we are doing here in the department focuses on how to best facilitate communication about emerging science among all relevant stakeholders in society.

What experiences from past science communication efforts inform your thinking about how best to communicate about gene editing?

Much of our work in LSC over the last few years has examined emerging areas of science that are surrounded by public opinion dynamics similar to what we might see for gene editing. This research has included work on public opinion on embryonic stem cell research, and also research on how non-expert audiences make sense of the risks and benefits of genetically modified organisms. Our research program has also led to regular engagements with policy communities in Wisconsin and in Washington, DC. When I co-chaired the National Academies’ Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences, for instance, I worked with bench scientists, social scientists and practitioners to build a better dialogue about emerging technologies between scientists and the public. g What aspects of gene editing seem to confuse or frighten people the most? We just collected two representative national surveys, tapping people’s views on synthetic biology, gene editing and other scientific breakthroughs. And our findings show that concerns about overstepping moral boundaries with potential applications of gene editing in humans and “blurring lines between God and man,” as the question was phrased, are definitely on people’s minds when thinking about this new technology. In LSC, we will continue to track public attitudes, especially surrounding the societal, ethical and regulatory questions that arise from applications of gene editing.

Obviously people are already reporting, writing, thinking and talking about CRISPR. Do you have any immediate recommendations for how to communicate about this subject?

It will be particularly important to keep two things in mind. First, this is an exciting area for science, but many of the questions and debates surrounding human gene editing will focus on ethical, moral or political rather than scientific questions. And we as scientists should be prepared to engage in those discussions, making sure that they are based on the best available science.

Second, having an honest dialogue among different stakeholders will require a conversation that is—at least in part—about values. And scientists will have to resist the intuitive urge to try and convince others by offering more scientific facts. Our own research and that of many colleagues has shown that the same scientific information will be interpreted very differently by audiences with different value systems. The same science, in other words, means different things to different people. And public reactions to many potential applications of gene editing will be no exception. g

PHOTO – Dietram Scheufele, professor of life sciences communication.

Photo by Sevie Kenyon

A Failure to Communicate

Few scientists have the public pulse under closer watch than Dietram Scheufele. A professor of life sciences communication, Scheufele uses public opinion surveys and statistical modeling to explore people’s attitudes toward controversial scientific issues such as stem cell research, nanotechnology and genetic engineering. He leads the Wisconsin research program for the Center for Nanotechnology and Society, funded by the National Science Foundation to probe the social issues that often swirl around emerging technologies. A native of Germany, Scheufele earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

While most people in CALS study science, you look at how science is communicated and perceived by the public. Why is it important to study this issue?

It’s probably more important now than it’s ever been. Issues like nanotechnology and stem cell research raise questions about what it means to be human, what kind of applications we want in the market and how quickly.

The tricky part is that, while scientists generally realize how important it is to connect with the public, many people have taken the approach that it will be enough if we just put sound science out there. But unfortunately that’s not really supported by the research. Most recent studies, including some of our own, show clearly that information is only part of the equation. For one thing, if it doesn’t reach certain parts of the audience, we obviously have a problem. But even if we reach everyone, there are still different publics who all use information differently.

Are scientists putting too much faith in information?

Not necessarily. Information is still at the core of the message. But scientists may be too optimistic about the power of information alone, rather than also paying attention to how that information needs to be presented—especially to audiences who traditionally don’t pay that much attention to science. We often think that museums, science sections of newspapers and traditional outreach are enough to inform the public. And they do a great job. But simply putting scientific information out there through traditional channels may in fact favor people who already know more or are more interested in science. In other words, we may end up unintentionally widening knowledge gaps.

The difficult part is not to talk about science to a PBS audience. It’s making PBS content accessible to an MTV audience.

Is (Google CEO) Larry Page right in saying that science has a marketing problem?

Well, in some ways, that was an unfortunate statement, because it reinforces a concern that many scientists have, which is that science is somehow going to engage in spin. On the other hand, he’s absolutely right. There are similarities between commercial marketing and how we communicate science. We’re dealing with a public that is not overly informed or interested in science, and in order to connect with these reluctant audiences, we need systematic research and strategic communication. It’s all about understanding different audiences and developing targeted messages based on careful public opinion research.

If you look at embryonic stem cell research as an example, even after 10 years of debate there still isn’t a public consensus about this field. What has influenced attitudes on this issue?

Stem cell research is a great example, because it’s an issue that has been heavily influenced by strategic campaigns on both sides. Interest groups have spent a lot of money researching what kinds of messages make people more or less likely to support certain aspects of stem cell research, and they’ve put considerable effort into framing the issue to their advantage. Religious groups, for example, have been very effective at framing stem cells as a moral issue, rather than a medical one.

One thing that is frustrating in these public debates is that science is often virtually absent. We have religious groups, we have Michael J. Fox, but we really have very little discussion about the scientific merits of stem cell research.

Why do you think scientists have been reluctant to be more visible on issues like these?

We’ve actually done some research on this with the Center for Nanotechnology and Society. When we asked scientists about media coverage of science, about two-thirds said they thought media coverage was usually inaccurate, and almost half of them said that coverage was hostile to science. So while they think communication can make a difference, they’re really reluctant to go through mass media.