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At Kerala Science Congress: Move to project nanotechnology as 'new alchemy'?

Dr BLV Prasad
By Rosamma Thomas 
In medieval chemical science, it was believed that base metals could be transformed to gold. For centuries, alchemists tried to transform lead to gold. It was telling that at the end of his lecture on the focus theme of nanotechnology at the 35th Kerala Science Congress at Kuttikkanam in Idukki district on Sunday, Dr BLV Prasad, Director, Centre for Nano and Soft Matter Sciences, Bangalore, showed a photograph of a jewellery shop, laden with gold – he mentioned that the image represented the desired goal for most industry linkages with nanotech.
‘Nanoscience and nanotechnology for human welfare’ was the focal theme of this Kerala Science Congress. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, inaugurating the conference, talked of how this congress will serve to bring together researchers in diverse fields, so they learn from each other and explore chances of collaboration.
The 2023-24 budget of the state government has allocated over Rs 3,000 crore for Research and Development, and the budget document states that Kerala is among the pioneering states in the country to “recognize the role of knowledge as a key resource of the modern economy.” CM Vijayan spoke of the light of knowledge, which would dispel superstition and notions of hierarchy based on caste, leading to a free society.
He cited Article 51A of the Constitution of India, and the duty to nurture the scientific temper and humanism. He mentioned that knowledge could not be confined within academic institutions, and must seep through society.
Over 700 delegates registered for the Science Congress event, where a range of scientific disciplines are represented – there are papers in agriculture, biotechnology, chemical sciences, earth and planetary sciences, engineering and technology, mathematics, nanotechnology, and environmental and health sciences to be presented at the event, which will conclude on February 14. 
The chief minister, in his inaugural address, also mentioned Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Vietnam, warning of the dangers of technology when used for violent ends.
The lecture hall was full to capacity and the cameras rolled during the inaugural session, at which the chief minister arrived punctually to make a pithy address. Once the chief minister left, however, the media personnel also appeared to follow him – the cameras were packed away, and the halls were no longer as full.
It was then that the series of inaugural lectures by scientists began – Dr BLV Prasad described his work and explained how his laboratory could be a site of research for scientists in other parts of the country. Following him, Dr Deepthy Menon of the Centre for Nanosciences and Molecular Medicine at the Amrita Vishwa Vidhyapeetam in Kochi spoke of the potential for nanotechnology in medicine – experiments are currently being conducted on mice and pigs, and some of them show remarkable recovery through delivery of drugs through nanotechnology.
Experiments conducted on mice and pigs show remarkable recovery through delivery of drugs through nanotechnology
One slide of a mouse with ovarian cancer showed successful treatment. Expounding on the potential for such delivery of drugs and devices, she mentioned “nano balls” which could encase “drug A, drug B, contrast agent A….” and aid in targeted delivery of the drug. Prof Sabu Thomas, vice chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, who was chairing the session, asked about potential side-effects of the use of nanotechnology in human medicine.
“That’s a double-edged sword,” Dr Menon responded, admitting that if gold for instance were used in nanotechnology and injected into the human body, it would be necessary to check where the substance would accumulate.
In one of her slides, Dr Menon presented a list of the material that could be used in nanotechnology, and graphene, which could absorb radiation and thus prove harmful to human health, was among them.
She also presented another slide noting that there were over 6 lakh cancer deaths in the US in 2022; nearly 20 lakh new cases of cancer were detected in that country in just one year – the data did not include figures from previous years, so there was little the audience could do to glean cancer prevalence in the US over time. 
It was interesting that the point of reference for Dr Menon was the US, and her data was from the US; the authority she cited too was the Food and Drug Administration, US.
The nanotechnology lectures at the 35th Kerala Science Congress reminded this reporter of the warning that American astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan sounded in his final TV interview of May 27, 1996, warning that democracy would be at risk if the general population did not understand what the scientists were up to.

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