«Nanotechnology can save thousands of lives»

For five years now, Dr. Mostafa Analoui has been helping US drugmaker Pfizer Inc. to identify new methods for developing pharmaceuticals. He attaches a central role to nanotechnology. At the same time, he cautions investors and patients against overblown expectations.

By Peter Hossli

Dr. Analoui, you are searching for new ways to develop drugs and are increasingly focusing on nanotechnology. Why?
Mostafa Analoui: I want to make a difference in my field, and nanotechnology helps me to do so. Every day, approximately 3,000 people in the USA alone die from heart disease. I think it’s possible to use nanotechnology to develop new types of therapies that will save thousands of lives.

The question is when. For years it’s been said that it’s still too soon to perform clinical trials of specific drugs developed through nanotechnology. When will the “too soon” adjunct disappear?
Analoui: It will be around for a while yet. It’s difficult to say where we’ll stand in 2015. It takes several years to develop new drugs. Even in conventional drug discovery, for every 100 ideas pursued in the laboratory, only two drugs result at best. Although nanotechnology possesses enormous potential, responsible scientists need to temper exaggerated hopes and clearly communicate the differences between science and fiction.

In which medical areas are you seeing the fastest developments?
Analoui: The so-called low-hanging nano fruit exists mainly in the areas of diagnostics and drug administration.

Critics of nanotechnology are increasingly warning against exposing humans to molecularly modified organisms. What must the influential players do to prevent nanotechnology from acquiring the same image problem that plagues genetic engineering?
Analoui: Every new technology carries risks, but we must distinguish between the genuine dangers and the imaginary ones perceived by the public. Together we must define the true risks and set general application parameters. It’s especially important to communicate transparently. For instance, we must clearly articulate that we don’t yet have a really good understanding of the dangers. I personally think they are minimal.

How big is the market potential for nanotechnology in your estimation?
Analoui: We project overall sales revenue of USD 377 billion in 2015 and expect life science to account for the largest component at USD 70 billion.

Public and private funds have been flowing into nanotechnology research for years. A few US startups are already listed on the stock exchange. But no profits have been earned yet. Does a nanotechnology bubble now loom on the heels of the internet bubble?
Analoui: There are fundamental differences. Nanotechnology is an all-inclusive term that encompasses a wide variety of technological methods and underlying knowledge that benefit numerous branches of industry. However, there is a discrepancy between promise and reality, as was once the case with the internet. Investors must distinguish between wishful thinking and genuine value creation. That can only be done by understanding the metrics of the technology in which they’re investing.

Can a nanotechnology bubble thus be averted?
Analoui: Investors have learned from the internet bubble. Back then, everyone wanted as rapid a return on investment as possible. With nanotechnology, people have accepted a longer time lag between investment and return. However, investors do not always behave rationally. This, coupled with the major complexity of the technology, could give rise to problems. Both sides therefore need to have an exact understanding of a company’s technology in order to be able to calculate its value. At the same time, I strongly urge against investing in companies managed solely by researchers.

What problems do nanotechnology investors face?
Analoui: Principally there is a lack of historical references on which to base valuations. It is difficult to determine the value of a young company that holds a few patents but has no products on the market yet. That makes it all the more imperative to understand not only the scientific elements, but also the actual market potential they possess. Regardless of how phenomenal a breakthrough in nanotechnology may be, the big challenge lies in developing a marketable product.

How important is nanotechnology?
Analoui: It will be the most important technology of the 21st century, I have no doubts about that.