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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.

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