Nanotechnology: Applications in Medicine

Imagine going to the doctor’s office for a vaccine. Instead of injecting a syringe full of clear liquid, the syringe appears to have nothing. In reality, the syringe contains thousands of contraptions that are far too small for the human eye. These apparatuses are made using nanotechnology, a growing domain of science and engineering that studies the applications of miniscule devices between one and a hundred nanometers. The miniscule size of these appliances opens a profusion of possibilities across fields like chemistry and biology, but it especially transforms modern medicine. Current cancer treatments can take several weeks before signs of improvement; advancements in the field of nanotechnology have produced an exciting alternative that can kill cancer cells within minutes [1]. Other illnesses like Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and even the flu, may be treated with nanotechnology. Smaller than a cell, nanodevices can operate at the level of crucial biological processes and unlock new and ingenious methods of medical diagnosis, treatment, and prevention that will revolutionize human health [2].

The earlier a disease is detected, the easier the disease is to cure. Nanotechnology has the potential to identify illnesses in early stages by introducing uniquely designed nanoparticles into the body. One of these particles is composed of quantum dots, inexpensive and versatile nanometer-sized semiconductor crystals. The most essential application of quantum dots is for cancer diagnosis. A test developed by Johns Hopkins researchers uses quantum dots to examine DNA strands for early warning signs of cancer. In the test, the scientists tried to recognize DNA methylation, a biological process that can block the passage of tumor-prohibiting proteins to ordinary cells and grant cancer cells the power to multiply and diffuse. Researchers then use quantum dots and chemical mechanisms to distinguish and remove the DNA strands that contain methyl groups. Thus, this test detects infected DNA molecules and precludes the spread and damage of tumors [3].

Besides quantum dots, researchers have invented a variety of innovative diagnostic devices. The University of Georgia has created gold nanoparticles that almost instantly diagnose the flu. These gold devices are cheaper than standard flu check-ups, as the amount of gold needed costs one hundredth of a cent. Additionally, this method is more beneficial for the patient because it permits doctors to begin treatment sooner [4]. Researchers at the same university also invented a diagnostic system utilizing silver nanorods to identify pathogens in mixtures. Unlike current techniques that may take weeks, this strategy produces highly specific results in less than an hour [5].

Incorporating nanotechnology may be necessary to enhance the capabilities and efficiency of medical diagnostics. Nanotechnology tests should be conducted at annual doctor appointments to detect diseases at their earliest stages. Most modern diagnostic approaches do not function at the nano scale, so discovering diseases at the DNA level is impossible. For example, biopsy, a popular test for cancer, cannot diagnose cancer unless the disease has already altered the cells. This is because biopsy can only examine the individual cells, but not smaller compounds like DNA and proteins [6].

New techniques involving nanodevices provide a possible solution to the once incurable diseases. Researchers are attempting to find ways using nanotechnology to heal cancer, an illness with no cure. An increasingly popular treatment is the use of targeted heat to kill the tumor cells. Unlike cancer radiation therapy that has the potential to trigger a second cancer and side effects, targeted heat treatment produces no toxicity in the body. One company, Nanospectra, has manufactured AuroShell™ particles [7, 8]. These nanodevices are released into the bloodstream and accumulate at the site of the tumor. Once infrared light is emitted nearby, the particles transfer the heat onto the tumor cells. This heat kills the tumor cells and has minimal impact on healthy cells [9]. Another targeted heat therapy uses nanotubes and antigens. Scientists are currently developing an effective antibody that is attracted to specific proteins in breast cancer cells as the vehicle for the nanotubes. Once the nanotubes reach the tumor cells, they burn their surroundings like the AuroShell™ particles [10].

Aside from curing diseases, nanotechnology has potential in the field of regenerative medicine. Popular regenerative medicine research is mainly focused on stem cells, or cells that maintain their ability to specialize [2]. However, nanodevices present another promising approach. Titanium nano-sized implants promote the responses of bone cells and accelerate the calcium deposit. The increase in calcium allows the bone to repair more completely. Moreover, materials like nano-sized polylactic-co-glycolic acid can alleviate cartilage damage by encouraging the development of chondrocytes, the cells found in healthy cartilages. Regenerative medicine using nanodevices is being made for bladder, vascular, and cardiac tissues [11].

Although nanotechnology has not developed a solution to treat HIV and AIDS, there are ongoing experiments using nano-sized objects to prevent the disease [12]. A vaccine for HIV/AIDS is being designed by using nanoparticles as carriers for the immunizing antigen. The nanoparticles can accurately target antigen-presenting cells (APC), and the APCs initiate the start of the cellular immunity. Furthermore, the nanoparticles delay the decomposition of the antigen by encapsulating them. The sustained and controlled release of antigens into the body may strengthen the immune system. Though nanotechnology-based vaccines for HIV and AIDS are at the beginning stages of development, there is no doubt of nanotechnology’s potential [13].

Researchers have also been struggling to create a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease; however, the blood brain barrier permits  few large fundamental transport molecules, to enter. This is where nanotechnology comes in. Scientists are trying to connect the transferrin to quantum rods, not dots, and have ascertained that the rods can get inside the brain. Quantum rods can also be linked to other diagnostic and medical molecules. These molecules will stimulate the growth of acetylcholine (AChE) and diminish beta-amyloid proteins, as AChE is important in memory and beta-amyloid proteins reduce the production of AChE [14].

Clearly, nanodevices have the potential to instigate extraordinary changes to disease treatment. Nanomaterials may never completely cure illnesses, but can put diseases into deep remission. Targeted heat therapies and nanotubes are just two out of the infinite possibilities, as new nanodevices can always be created. If nanotechnology has the potential to remedy one of medicine’s biggest enigmas, future treatments of complicated diseases should utilize nanodevices as the first option. Should medicine depend on nanotechnology, mathematician Richard Schwartz surmised, “The impact of nanotechnology is expected to exceed the impact that the electronics revolution has had on our lives.”

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16. Image credit (public domain): Rosenzweig, Zeev. 2010. “Nanotechnology.” United States Government public domain.

Jason Chu is a student at The Harker School. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.