John Halamka works in two very different worlds, and the promise of nanotechnology excites him in both. As CIO of CareGroup Health System in Boston, he has to consider how the technology might change the IT infrastructure of one of the country's largest hospital chains. And as an emergency physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, he also sees how it could revolutionize the practice of medicine.
As a CIO, Halamka is most interested in the increased computing power nanotech promises. Hospitals used to be low-tech computer users, but today, they monitor and collect huge volumes of digital data, from patient information to images produced by MRI and CAT scanners. Doing so requires increasingly complex IT infrastructure and data storage that Halamka sees quickly outrunning today's computing power. "We've got a 40-terabyte system, growing at a rate of 60 Gbytes a day," he says. "I'm going to need the kind of processing power that nanotech is going to afford the CPUs and processors of the future."
As a physician, Halamka is intrigued by the potential for nanoelectronics to help him save lives and improve the quality of health care. Consider a procedure such as endoscopy, he suggests, in which a doctor has to insert an uncomfortably large hose, which holds a camera, into a patient to examine the gastrointestinal tract. Last August, the Food and Drug Administration approved a camera the size of a pill that patients can swallow, and Halamka believes even less-intrusive examinations will be among the first direct patient benefits from nanotech.
What gets mentioned more often, of course, is a much more far-out idea. Imagine being able to send medical robots marching through the bloodstream of patients to repair damaged arteries, excise cancerous cells, or drop drug payloads to an exactly targeted area. It's the distant dream of nanotechnology. Halamka doesn't expect it any time soon but says it might happen someday.
Just don't hold your breath. "When you put anything in the body, not only does it take a really long time to develop it, it takes a really long time to get approved," Jason Friedman, a senior associate for the JP Morgan Partners venture group, told a nanotech conference last month. "When startups approach us with those kinds of pitches, we say, 'Thanks. Call us in 10 years.'"