Nanotechnology: the future of medicine
The future of medicine is small, very small, and very exciting. Professor Kerryn Phelps investigates how nanotechnology is changing the world of healthcare.
NANOTECHNOLOGY, nanomedicine, nanosurgery. Everyone in the health sector is talking “nano”. Its Greek origin means “dwarf”, but in its scientific application, it means tiny, submicroscopic, a billionth of whatever it prefixes.
So medicine in the future is
“thinking small” in order to “think big”. Nanotechnology in medicine involves materials and devices that are designed to interact with the body at subcellular, or molecular level, or a scale of between one and 100 nanometres.
To put it into context, a sheet of newspaper is 100,000 nanometres thick. Yes, a nanometre is that small. Some applications of this technology are already in use in medicine, some are in development or being tested, while others are still in the realm of the possible.
Nanotechnology is already in use in a variety of applications, such as the use of nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in sunscreens to protect against ultraviolet radiation. New nanotechnology-based medicines are now in clinical trials, which may be available soon to treat patients. Other applications involve the use of nanoparticles to deliver drugs, light or heat to specific target cells. One example is the potential use of nanoparticles engineered to recognise cancer cells so that they can deliver toxic chemotherapy drugs directly to those abnormal cells, minimising the damage these drugs can do to healthy body cells.
In standard cancer surgery, it is impossible to tell exactly where the margin of the cancer lies. Precise nanosurgery aims to ensure that nothing other than the targeted cells are damaged.
A technique known as NanoKnife is already in use in prostate cancer surgery. The NanoKnife is not actually a knife. It is a minimally invasive, probe-based technology that destroys tumours using pulsed, low-current, high-voltage electrical energy. Then electrical energy targets the cancer cells containing the nanoparticles and creates permanent “pores” in the cell membrane leading to cancer cell death.
This treatment focuses only on the tumour, rather than removing the entire organ and the surrounding blood vessels. Nerves are mostly unaffected, which means that the side-effects are dramatically reduced.
The technique also has potential in the treatment of other early stage cancers and locally advanced cancers.
Nanotechnology is also being used in an attempt to build medical microrobots. The idea is that these surgical nanorobots could be inserted into the body through a vein or via a catheter into a body cavity. Think the classic 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage and then let your imagination run wild. The surgical nanorobot would be programmed, guided or controlled by the surgeon planning the procedure. It could seek out and destroy cancers, perform diagnostic biopsies, remove clots in blood vessels and even perform procedures within single cells. Nanorobots could be used to circulate in the body, constantly transmitting information about the chemical environment of the body or instantly dispensing drugs or hormones to correct detected imbalances or deficiencies. Nanorobots might even one day be able to correct genetic deficiencies by altering or replacing DNA molecules.
More research is needed to rule out potential health and environmental risks of reducing chemicals to nanoscale proportions, which can dramatically alter their physical properties. And as with any quantum advance in medicine, excitement about new technology must be tempered by caution about the safety of any proposed use in humans, and any ethical issues which might arise. Even so, the future of nanotechnology in medicine represents an exciting new frontier with limitless potential for diagnosing and treating a vast range of human health challenges.
“Think the classic 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage and then let your imagination run wild.”
A scientist processes a nano material that can
be used in medicine.