The health care industry is predicted to receive the first significant benefits of nanotechnology. The driving force behind this prediction is that biological structures are within the size scale that researchers are now able to manipulate and control.
Investigators are looking to nanotechnology to develop highly sensitive disease detectors, drug delivery systems that only target the disease and not the surrounding healthy tissue, and nanoscale building blocks that help repair skin, cartilage, and/or bone.
The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative has identified the detection, diagnosis and treatment of disease as “grand challenges” for nanotechnology.
Detection & Diagnosis
One of the goals of researchers working at the nanoscale is to develop tools that will enable doctors to detect life threatening diseases before they overwhelm the body. For example, doctors would like to be able to diagnose breast cancer when the tumor mass is 100-1000 cells. Right now with techniques like mammography, a tumor mass needs to be more than a million cells before an accurate clinical diagnosis can be made.
Sensors based upon nanoscale materials have the potential to be millions of times more sensitive than their macro scale counterparts. They could also be designed to detect hundreds or even thousands of diseases at the same time.
Researchers are examining the hypothesis that there are biological markers in the body for disease, but that some of these biological markers are at such small concentrations that current methods can not sense them.
Recently, researchers identified a biological marker for Alzheimer’s disease and have been able to detect minute concentrations of it using nanotechnology (i.e., bio-barcode process developed by Chad Mirkin and colleagues). If successful, this could be the first tool for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Experiments are also underway to use this bio-barcode process for other diseases like AIDS and many forms of cancer.
Disease is caused largely by damage and destruction at the molecular and cellular level. Unfortunately, many current treatments cause damage to healthy tissue as well as diseased tissue.
Controlled and targeted drug delivery represents one of the frontier areas of science. The field of nanotechnology could provide the roadmap.
Researchers are investigating nanoparticles as drug carriers. These nanoscale drug carriers could be coated with nano-sensors, which could recognize diseased tissues and attach to them, releasing a drug exactly where needed. Nanoparticles could also be used to enter damaged cells and release enzymes that tell the cells to auto-destruct, or they could release enzymes to try to repair the cell and return it to normal functioning.
Researchers around the world are working to unlock the potential of nanotechnology as it relates to the field of medicine.
Unlike other cells in the body, once cells in the central nervous system (spinal cord or brain cells) are mature, they cannot reproduce themselves like other cells can.
If these cells are damaged through accident or disease, patients must learn to live with the impact.
Nanotechnology may provide some promise. Samuel Stupp and colleagues at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern are using nanotechnology to engineer a gel that spurs the growth of nerve cells. The gel fills the space between existing cells and encourages new cells to grow. While still in the experimental stage, this process could eventually be used to re-grow lost or damaged spinal cord or brain cells.
Researchers are also investigating the use of nanotechnology to keep the body from rejecting artificial parts, and to stimulate the body to regrow bone and other types of tissue.