Science and Technology
Nano-medicine: A Brave New World
Traversing The Vast Landscape Of Utopian Dreams And Apocalyptic Nightmares
What if doctors can send out search parties in your body to track down cancer cells and wipe them out before they invade your body and turn malicious? What if a ruptured cell or an organ can be replaced with a microbiological machine that perfectly mimics its functions? What if we can reverse aging and turn old, sick people into young, healthy ones?
Well, the world is shrinking as new and adaptive technologies emerge into the limelight. This means, among other things, that robots will soon be roaming around in your bloodstream.
Welcome to the world of Nanotechnology!
What is Nanotechnology?
The former president of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), Winfred Phillips, once said:
“You have to be able to fabricate things, you have to be able to analyze things, you have to be able to handle things smaller than ever imagined in ways not done before.”
Nanotechnology allows us to manipulate matter at its atomic and molecular level to create materials with remarkably new and varied characteristics. It is a rapidly expanding area of research with huge potential in various sectors, ranging from Information Technology to electronics to healthcare. In fact, The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) asserts that Nanotechnology will leave virtually no aspect of life untouched.
Many of us will be more familiar with nano-tech as the technology powering Iron Man’s brand-new armor in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (2018), where Tony Stark instantly builds a nano-tech suit just by pressing the power source on his chest.
Keeping the fantasy realm aside, real-world breakthroughs at the nano-scale will soon be saving lives in healthcare. The expectations of the diagnostic, therapeutic, and regenerative possibilities of nano-medicine are immense. Nanotechnology promises to revolutionize diagnostics, gene therapy, drug delivery, and much more research, development, and clinical applications.
Let’s take a look at a few ways in which nanotechnology is influencing the future of healthcare:
Nano-devices can be used for the early detection of disease at the cellular or molecular level. Nano-medicine is working towards selective identification and disposal of afflicted cells without adversely affecting the tissues nearby. Researchers have found ways to detect kidney damage and rogue cancer cells in the bloodstream by using antibodies attached to nano-tubes.
Nanosensors can also be embedded at implant sites to detect post-surgery inflammation. This assists the physician in providing effective treatment to minimize infection and establish long-lasting, well-tolerated organ implants.
DNA is really minuscule, about 2 nano meters across in diameter, and does not like to be stretched thin. But imagine being able to stretch out sections of DNA like spaghetti strands to examine and regulate its functions, fabricate nanobots that can ‘walk,’ and carry out repairs inside these cell components. Nanotechnology is bringing the scientific dream closer to reality.
Gene therapy involves the manipulation of individual genes or the molecular pathways that influence their expression. New genes are delivered to the affected cells using localized nano-particles, thus regulating and normalizing the body functions. Researchers are increasingly investigating nanotechnology as an option for treating genetically inherited diseases. One highly sought goal in this field is the ability to provide treatments with tailor-made medicines according to individual patients’ genetic makeup.
Drug delivery systems constitute a rapidly expanding discipline of medicine where nanoparticles are employed to deliver therapeutic drugs to specified target sites in a controlled manner. These nanoparticles stay in the circulatory system for a more extended period than conventional drug carriers. Thus nanites enable the release of drugs as required. These particles are designed to attract diseased cells, allowing immediate treatment of those cells with minimal hazard to the healthy tissues.
Taking the research further, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US show how it may be possible to fabricate such drugs in situ, right at the target site. In a recent issue of Nanoletters, they demonstrate the plausibility of self-assembling “nanofactories” that can produce protein compounds, on-demand, at the target sites. The MIT team is currently working on synthesizing potential cancer drugs to attack metastatic tumors.
Beating the Big C
According to a study published by the American Cancer Society, nearly 40% of humans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime. Cancer therapy is currently limited to surgery, radiation, and the inevitable, chemotherapy; all of which risk damaging the healthy tissues or the incomplete eradication of cancer. Nanotechnology now offers means to target chemotherapy directly and selectively to neoplasms and cancerous cells, guide in delicate surgical abscission of tumors, and enhance the therapeutic efficiency of current treatment modalities.
DNA-based nanobots are also being created to attack and reconstruct the molecular structure of cancer cells. Doctors would offer the patient an injection of a particular type of nanite programmed to check and destroy the tumor without affecting the healthy cells. This significant augmentation would raise the standard of healthcare greatly.
Nanobots could also be engineered to perform intricate surgeries — such nanosurgeons could work at a level that is a thousand times more precise than the sharpest scalpel. A surgical nanite could be programmed or directed by a human surgeon to act as a semi-autonomous on-site surgeon inside the body. Such a nanodevice could perform diagnostics and cell manipulations through coordination with the supervising surgeon using nanoimaging and coded ultrasound signals.
A robot could operate without leaving any scars, unlike conventional surgery, by working on the nanoscale. Additionally, nanorobots could alter your physical appearance at your volition. They could be engineered to perform cosmetic surgery, rearrange your atoms to change your eye color, nose, ears, or other physical features. That certainly seems wistful!
What are the stakes?
Even as optimists have hailed the positive possibilities of nanotechnology, pessimists have argued about the case of molecular-level devices wreaking havoc because they could so easily spin out of control. Such as the “Grey Goo,” a hypothetical global cataclysmic scenario in which out of control, self-replicating nano-assemblers destroy the biosphere by endlessly replicating themselves and feeding on materials necessary for life. This scenario has been termed as ‘ecophagy,’ literally meaning “eating the habitation.”
Even as we hope that this apocalyptic circumstance will remain hypothetical, let us examine the safety concerns posed by nanomedicine in the near future. Nanomaterials do raise several potential long-term and short-term health apprehensions. Nanomaterials’ properties make it challenging to predict how they will penetrate the various biological barriers in the body. For instance, these particles are small enough to penetrate the cell membrane of our gut lining, with the potential to access our brain and other body parts. It is difficult to predict the biodistribution and toxicity of nanoscale particles precisely.
Another concern arises regarding the metabolism of nanoparticles, as they can be metabolized or split up into different pieces. They can then enter the cells of various organs and reside in them for an unknown amount of time before getting excreted or moving onto other organs. And what happens, for instance, to insoluble nanoparticles? If they cannot be metabolized or degraded, there is a possibility they will congregate and damage organs. Ultimately, it all comes to the stability of different nanoparticles to predict how they will behave in a controlled environment.
Nanoparticles are also highly reactive due to their high surface area to mass ratio. They may trigger unknown chemical reactions by binding with toxins and providing them entry into the cell.
Though nanotechnology holds a lot of promise in medicine, the safety issues and concerns cannot be disregarded. As the pace of research accelerates and the market for nanomaterials expands, it still appears not enough is being done to discover their toxicological consequences. Much more research is required to ensure that this rapidly developing technology is safe for consumption before entering the market. The plausible risk that nanotechnology poses to human health must be investigated to achieve its maximum potency.