Citing ongoing research in India, Brazil, China and South Africa, scientists say nanotechnology - science on the scale of atoms and molecules - could give developing nations new ways to diagnose and treat disease.
Nanotechnology is the ability to see, measure, manipulate and manufacture things on a scale of 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter; a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
"Nanotechnology has the potential to generate enormous health benefits for the more than five billion people living in the developing world," said Peter Singer, senior scientist at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.
He was speaking at a meeting here recently on "Using Nanotechnology to Improve Health Care in Developing Countries", organised by two Woodrow Wilson International Centre efforts - the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and the Global Health Initiative.
Singer's group showed that a surprising amount of nanotechnology research and development activity is going on in several developing countries, and that these nations are directing their nanotechnology innovation systems to address their more pressing needs.
"Countries like Brazil, India, China and South Africa have significant nanotechnology research initiatives that could be directed toward the particular needs of the poor," said Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
In a 2005 paper describing his team's study "Nanotechnology and the Developing World", Singer said India's Department of Science and Technology would invest $20 million in 2004-2009 for a Nanomaterials Science and Technology Initiative.
The number of nanotechnology patent applications from China ranks third, behind the US and Japan. In Brazil, the projected budget for nanoscience during 2004-2007 was about $25 million.
The South African Nanotechnology Initiative is a national network of academic researchers involved in nanotechnology, and other developing countries, such as Thailand, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina and Mexico, pursuing nanotechnology, according to Singer's paper.
Nanotechnologies are being developed in nearly every industry, including electronics, magnetics and optoelectronics, energy, information technology, materials development, transportation, pharmaceuticals and medicine.
The emerging field involves scientists from many disciplines, including physicists, chemists, engineers, materials scientists and biologists. More than 400 consumer products worldwide are derived from the use of nanotechnology in some way.
In 2005, Singer's group in Toronto published a study identifying and ranking the 10 nanotechnologies most likely to benefit the developing world in the near future.
At the top of the list were nanotechnology applications related to energy storage, production and conversion; enhancement of agricultural productivity; water treatment and remediation; and the diagnosis and treatment of disease.
In the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Cancer Institute (NCI) has formed the Nanotechnology Alliance for Cancer to move more quickly molecular-based science from the laboratory into the clinic.
"Nanotechnologies could revolutionise health care in developing countries and make treatments more readily available for diseases that claim millions of lives around the world each year." said Alliance Director Piotr Grodzinski.
Nanomaterials and nanomedical devices, he added, "will play increasingly critical and beneficial roles in improving the way we diagnose, treat, and ultimately prevent cancer and other diseases".
To help the international community support the application of nanotechnology to critical sustainable development challenges in developing countries, including health care, Singer and his group proposed an initiative called "Addressing Global Challenges Using Nanotechnology".
Modelled after the Foundation for the NIH/Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health, the initiative would be funded by national and international foundations, and from collaboration among nanotechnology initiatives in industrialised and developing countries.
Responsible development of nanotechnology must include benefits for people in both rich and poor nations and at relatively low cost," Maynard said. "This also requires that careful attention be paid to possible risks nanotechnology poses for human health and the environment."