Nanotechnology & Healthcare

Nanoscience is the study of structures and materials on an ultra-small scale. But just how small is ultra-small and why should you even care about these materials?

To help you understand just how tiny nano-materials are a nanometre is one-billionth of a meter. To give you context behind that statistic, nanoparticles are usually 500–100000 times ‘thinner’ than a human hair!

For the majority of human history, humans could only make use of the materials they could see with microscopes or touch with their hands. Then Richard Feynman gave the talk Plenty of Room At The Bottom and stated that we should construct things out of the most fundamental units of chemistry — atoms.

These tiny particles, called nanoparticles, have the potential to make huge changes to our world by revolutionizing a diverse range of fields, from health care to manufacturing!

I find that the most fascinating application of nanotechnology in healthcare in the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. But before we jump into how nanotechnology can better healthcare let’s first understand which stage we are in for nanotechnology and what stages even exit!

Generations of Nanotechnology

Mike Roco from the U.S National Nanotechnology Initiative organized an understanding of the study of nanotechnology within four different generations. These generations are Passive Nanostructures, Active Nanostructures, Systems of Nanosystems, and Molecular Nanosystems.

Generation 1: Passive Nanostructures

This is the generation of the creation of materials where we control their structure on a molecular level. It allows for material properties that are useful or even revolutionary!

Products can use dispersed and contact nanostructures. Then products incorporating nanostructures such as reinforced composites, nanostructured metals, polymers, and ceramics and also be created and utilized.

An example of a passive nanostructure is an additive that turns paint into radio-blocking material. This generation of nanotechnology also includes coating structures in nanomaterial or making materials that are entirely composed of a specific nanostructure.

The result of doing so may get polymers, metals, or ceramics that are far stronger or lighter than their non-nano-boosted predecessors.

Selected applications of nanomaterials in coatings and their functions (according to Paschen et al. 2003, Deutsches Lackinstitut 2012, BG BAU 2013)

Generation 2: Active Nanostructures

In the second generation of nanotechnology, nanostructures aren’t just passive ones with specific properties, but they make changes to other things. They are active in some way and make changes to other objects or materials.

Nanomedicines are an excellent example of using nanostructures. For example, a team of researchers has had incredible results using targeted nanostructures to treat late-stage metastatic cancer in mice.

In the study, 50% of mice with “incurable” breast cancer that had spread to other parts of the body were effectively cured of the disease within eight months of treatment. The scientists in question said that this is the equivalent of a 24-year survival period in human terms, which is an impossible result with current methods.

This generation of nanotechnology also includes nanoscale devices such as the MEMS system in your smartphone. These are microscopic accelerometers that allow your phone to know which way it’s being held and to track its motion.

The next generation of transistors will also be three-dimensional nanostructures and are likely to enable a new generation of computer performance!

Generation 3: Systems of Nanosystems

If you think the first two generations were cool, this one is even better! The third generation nanotech is where we see various nanomachines working together.

A nanofactory is a molecular assembly machine designed to manufacture products with atomic precision and these nanofactories can assemble molecules or complex large-scale machines and materials.

The long terms future of nanotechnology is to have localized production to eliminate the need for the transport of goods. Individualized production or “customized mass production” will be a powerful antidote to the products of the Industrial Revolution that is based on identical replication.

Nanofactory Animation

Generation 4: Molecular Nanosystems

“Molecular nanotechnology is the expected ability to build our products with molecular-level precision, as nature can do. It will bring unprecedented quality, energy efficiency and environmental sustainability”

—Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Nanotech Institute in California

This generation of nanotechnology will give us complete control of the actual molecules that make up our nanomachines. So, while a third-generation nanomachine may have different components made from specific molecules, a fourth-generation nanomachine is made from different molecules with specific structures; each molecule has a specific structure and function.

So researchers are building nanomachines at the molecular level by using specific atoms to build them. Molecular nanotechnology could allow us to create the products we need with the sort of precision that right now only nature can do.

Nanotechnology In Healthcare

So now we know about the four generations of nanotechnology! But how can these tiny materials help people via healthcare? Thankfully there are a wide array of ways we can benefit from nanotechnology in the healthcare sector by improving inefficient methods of treatment and diagnosis.

Right now over 99% of cancer drugs never make it to the tumor! As they lack transpiration and tools to take them to the tumor they are aiming for. Nanoparticles can act as the career to get the drugs to the tumor.

Nanoparticles allow drugs to not be flushed out through the liver. If the drugs are in nanoparticles the drugs will not be flushed out of the body as the particles are too big. Thus, the nanoparticle carrier drugs will continue to circulate in the blood to give them more time to find the tumor.

Nanoparticles can also protect the drugs from being destroyed inside the body. Several important and yet easily degraded drugs are easily removed from the body by enzymes in the blood.

Nano X-ray treatment is another improvement in the treatment of cancer with nanotechnology! Nanocrystals are optimized to absorb more X-rays and produce many more free radicals than water damaging the tumor cell’s DNA and cellular structure more severely than the surrounding healthy tissue.

Because of the nanoparticles, the x-rays effect is amplified and localized within the tumor allowing for a targeted strike against cancer cells while healthy tissues receive the standard dose of radiation the tumor dies much more quickly. Just one injection of nanoparticles can amplify several radiotherapy sessions shrinking the tumor over time. Check out Nanobiotix to find out more.

Nanomedicine

“The use of atomic and molecular scale devices to repair damage in biological systems adapting the precision used by synthetic chemists to into the realm if medicine” —Ralph Merkle

This branch of medicine applies the knowledge and tools of nanotechnology to the prevention and treatment of disease. Nanomedicine involves the use of nanoscale materials, such as biocompatible nanoparticles and nanorobots, for diagnosis, delivery, sensing or actuation purposes in a living organism.

Many believe that nanomedicines represent the next era in drug innovation. Current research has demonstrated improved performance, reduced side effects, and revolutionary new treatment strategies like personalized medicine!

Overall I believe that the intersection of nanotechnology and healthcare can revolutionize the way people are medically diagnosed and treated! I am excited to continue exploring nanotechnology and the impact it can have on healthcare.

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I am passionate about health and technology especially when the two are used together to help others.

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