Nanotechnology: the next silver bullet?

Although predicted by many to be the future of biotech and pharma R&D, investment in nanotechnology has been unexpectedly low so far, with few companies willing to take that financial risk. A focus group has been established in the UK with major industry stakeholders to assess how companies can take on the risk of an unproven technology in a highly regulated industry. The author believes, however, that the successful early adopters of nanotech will reap the rewards.
Jul 01, 2009

A number of commentators during the past few years have speculated that nanotechnology is the wave of the future in biotech and pharma. Predictions such as "The market could steeply rise after 2012, reaching potentially $220 billion by 2015 for these nanoenabled compounds"1 cause companies and their investors to take notice. There is, however, a large disparity between these predictions and the actions of the very companies that are in a position to make them a reality. For example, a Lux Research survey concluded that the pharma industry spends less than 0.5% of its research budget on nanotechnology and that only a sixth of companies had any nanotechnology strategy in place.2

Table 1: Approved nano-enabled therapeutics.
Nanotech appears to be following the classic technology adoption curves shown in Figure 1. This shows the bellshaped Rogers Adoption Curve3 for any technology, overlaid by the Gartner Hype Cycle,4 which demonstrates technology acceptance. A new technology creates initial excitement that hypes its promise to be the next silver bullet. Usually, the hype is caused through a lack of understanding of the technology and its applications, which leaves the imagination to run wild and results in overstatement of the technology's promise. This is then followed by disillusionment when the reality does not match the hype. Finally, full adoption is achieved as the technology proves itself in the market.

Figure 1: Gartner Hype Cycle (blue)/Rogers Technology Adoption Curve (red).
The estimates of the nano market (above) are likely to be part of the early 'hype' peak. We are now in the following trough, where expectations are low and there is a significant gap between early adopters and the early majority.

Current nano-enabled drugs

There are a number of early adopters of nanotechnology in the pharmaceutical industry. Table 1 shows the available nanotech formulations along with examples of approved drugs. Relative to the number of nonnano products on the market, the full list of approved nanoenabled drugs is very small and those that have made it to the market are effectively reformulations of existing generic drugs. These rarely allow significant returns on investment because of the low cost of the generic comparator drug used by health technology appraisal bodies such as The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Unless the reformulation drastically reduces toxicity or doseage (and, therefore, cost), the increased cost in comparison to the relatively minor change in quality adjusted life year (QALY) would make jumping the 'fourth hurdle' hard to achieve.