For a long time I thought nanotechnology existed strictly in the realm of science-fiction. In fact, applied nanotechnology has been around my whole life, since the early 1980s. Today’s world contains countless examples of nanotools at work: self-cleaning paints, water-repellent clothes, glass coatings, engine lubricants, and UV protection in sunscreen. This tiny, invisible world already impacts your life in so many ways – and soon, it will be inside you.
The Nano World
First, let’s get our heads around the scale of this thing. A human hair is 80,000 nanometres (nm) wide. You know something that’s 2nm wide? The double helix structure of your DNA.
That’s equivalent to 0.000000002 metres, or 2 billionths of a metre. In other words, the nano world is unthinkably small. You probably shouldn’t even try to get your head around it. Perhaps I’ll just delete this bit out. Oh never mind, I’ve written it now, and it’s well known that good writers never delete what they’ve already written because it indicates lack of character*. Quick – a distraction! Look at this exciting picture of a lost iguana exploring the nano world.
*This is not true.
How Nanotech Began
During the atomic age (aka the 1950s) the physicist Richard Feynman (Surely You’re Joking, Mr, Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character) came up with the idea that we would build things from the ground up, atom by atom. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Eric Drexler (Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization) proposed how such nano construction could actually work. He conceived of building tiny factories with even tinier machines inside. The same decade, IBM created the first scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) with an imaging probe just one atom in width. For this, its inventors, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, won a Nobel Prize in Physics. The effect was massive. Physicists could now see materials at the atomic level, enabling them to engineer a raft of nano tools for the industrial world.
What Does Nanotechnology Look Like?
Nanotechnology Means Nanomedicine
Nanotechnology is piercing its way into medicine. In the coming years, we will witness extraordinary leaps in diagnosis and treatment at the nano scale. Let’s not forget that there are already trillions of nano devices inside your body. Your cells are minute biological factories, containing infinitesimal biological machinery that perform specific functions to grow, maintain and repair every single molecule that makes up you. When this organic machinery fails, disease takes over.
Now, we’re developing the nanotools to tackle disease at the scale at which it operates. Tools that can transport and release targeted anti-cancer drugs, without destroying healthy cells, for example. Such experiments have already proven successful in mice. Soon, you’ll have man-made molecular machines inside you, clearing out your arteries, targeting tumours, and killing plaques in your brain. They will treat and prevent heart attacks, cancers and Alzheimer’s Disease, making these terminal diagnoses a thing of the past.
Types of Nanomedicine
Contrast agents for cell imaging – Nanoparticles of cadmium selenemide (quantum dots) glow under ultraviolet light. When injected, they seep into cancerous tumours, enabling surgeons to precisely identify the boundary between the cancerous and healthy cells.
Infrared tumour removal – Gold nanoshells can detect biological markers for cancer (something you can’t do with a microscope) and bond to the affected cells. By irradiating the tumourous area with an infrared laser, the nanoshells are heated sufficiently to destroy the cancer cells.
Repairing arterial walls – During organ transplants, the accidental damage of arteries requires difficult stitching which can lead to blood leaks and other complications. By dropping gold nanoshells along the wound, an infrared laser can then weld the seam together with high precision.
Gene editing – Eventually, we could employ nanobots to repair our chromosomes, switching individual genes on or off, and preventing or reversing inherited diseases like cystic fibrosis and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This could supplant or accelerate current gene therapy research.
Neuro-electronic interfaces – Early research is underway to build nano devices that control and detect nerve impulses via an external computer. This will have huge implications for nervous system disorders like ALS, as well as injuries and accidents that affect the nerves.
But What About The Immune Reaction?
As the biology fans among you may have guessed, your body will react to nanobots as invaders, triggering an immune response. If we didn’t address the issue, white blood cells would fight off the nano-invaders before they could even get to work on diseased cells. How could we overcome this?
Nano researchers are already on it. One recent study masked nanoparticles as red blood cell fragments, tricking the body into accepting them as friendly. The nanobots went on to successfully repair damaged blood vessels. With the increasing use of viral vectors in gene therapy, we’re learning more about how to introduce masked invaders without triggering the immune system.
The Reality of Nanomedicine
The FDA has already approved around 30 nanomedicines and 15 nanotools for use in humans. Nanomedicine already exists and you will almost certainly experience it in your lifetime. One day, you’ll visit your doctor with a cold and she’ll launch nanobots to seek and destroy the virus invading your body. Say goodbye to cough medicines and antibiotics because nanomedicine is on the brink of commercial use… and the possibilities are glorious.