Nanomedicine Technology is Here

Nanomedicine Technology is Here

Nanomedicine technology is well underway, with 50 therapies FDA-approved, and many more in development, from tooth remineralisation to cancer treatment.

Article Contents

The Scale of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology has been infiltrating your life for decades. Self-cleaning paints, water-repellent clothes, engine lubricants, and UV protection all use nanotechnology. Now science is accelerating a nanomedicine revolution that will further shape our experience of being human.

First you need to get your head around the scale of nanotechnology. Consider that a human hair is 80,000 nanometres wide, a bacterium is 1,000nm long, and the novel coronavirus is, on average, 80nm wide. The smallest gold nanoshells, which are a staple in present-day nanomedicine, are just 1nm wide.

Scale of nanotechnology illustration: gold nanoshells (1nm), coronavirus (80nm), bacteria (1,000nm), and human hair (80,000nm)

Nanotechnology operates on a scale of 1-100 nanometres.

Nanotechnology products are built atom by atom to have specific physical properties that speed up our phones, protect us from sunburn, and deliver drugs across the blood-brain barrier. That's just what we do now.

It's unthinkable really. You probably shouldn't even try to get your head around it. Perhaps I'll just delete this bit out to save you the trouble. Never mind, I've written it now, and it's well known that good writers never delete things they've already written because it indicates lack of character*.

*This is not true.

Quick—a distraction! Look at this picture of a tiny iguana lost in the nanoworld.

Iguana Lost in The Nanoworld

How did he get here? What is this place? He's terribly confused.

Who Invented Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology was dreamed up in the atomic age of the 1950s, when the quantum physicist, Richard Feynman, gave a talk outlining how we would one day "arrange atoms one by one, just as we want them".

"Why can we not write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin?" - Richard Feynman

Then in the 1970s, the engineer, Eric Drexler, published seminal studies on how nanotechnology construction could actually work. He conceived of Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM): desktop-sized nanofactories which could build a variety of nanoscale products. APMs would build devices that are rigid and strong, held firm by a dense network of atomic bonds.

In 1981, engineers at IBM created the first Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM) with an imaging probe just one atom wide.

How Scanning Tunnelling Microscopes Work: Close Up Diagram of an STM

How the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM) works.

The Scanning Tunnelling Microscope works by scanning a tungsten needle over a surface and applying a small voltage causing electrons to tunnel across the gap. The probe then measures variations in the tunnelling current to produce a topographical image at the atomic scale.

For the first time, the STM allowed us to visualise nanoscale phenomena, opening the door to manipulate objects at the atomic level. Engineers have been building nanodevices ever since.

What Does Nanotechnology Look Like?

Nanotechnology takes many forms. It often uses atoms of carbon, aluminium, titanium, iron, cobalt, copper, silver, and gold because they have the most useful physical properties. Atoms are arranged into various rigid structures, including pores, rods, wires, ribbons, tubes, and scaffolds, to give rise to functional nanodevices and materials.

Consider carbon nanotubes: cylinders composed of carbon atoms. CNTs provide strong and durable electrical conduction, giving them a broad range of applications in electronics, optics, and plastics.

Carbon nanotube illustration (CNT) showing carbon atoms arranged into a cylindrical structure 2nm wide

This single-wall carbon nanotube is 2 nanometres wide.

The price of pure, high-quality CNTs is $1,000 per gram. That's 17 times more than the price of gold today at $57 per gram.

Bulk CNTs—a mass of unorganised fragments of nanotubes—are significantly cheaper. This affords their use in a range of products from bicycle parts, to adhesive tape, to microscope probes.

Another child of the nanotech revolution is the silicon nanowire (SiNW), a type of semiconductor capable of converting heat into electricity. SiNWs are made from threads of silicon atoms just 1 nanometre wide. At this scale, quantum mechanical effects kick in, earning SiNWs the pseudonym of quantum wires.

Silicon nanowire illustration (SiNW) where silicon atoms can grown in an array to 400nm long

Silicon nanowires can be etched or grown to hundreds of nanometres long.

Quantum wires are stronger and lighter than any comparable material. They have applications in lithium ion batteries, solar panels, and microscopic sensors.

So how has nanotechnology been used in medicine?

The Nanomedicine Revolution

When applied to medicine, this technology will revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat disease. It's a rapidly developing field, with many new nanomedicine tools fast becoming a reality.

Consider the trillions of biological nanodevices already inside your body: your cells. These biological nanofactories make protein products continuously to grow, maintain, and repair your body. But when this organic machinery fails, disease takes over.

Traditionally we treat disease at the macroscopic scale (eg, setting a broken bone in plaster) as well as the microscopic scale (eg, dosing insulin to treat diabetes). Nanomedicine allows us to treat disease at the appropriate operational scale, making for less invasive and more effective therapies.

The scale of nanomedicine technology: macro medicine (surgery), micro medicine (drugs), and nanomedicine (nanoshells)

Nanomedicine fights disease at the scale of microbiology.

Examples of Nanomedicine Today

Widely used in oncology, here are three examples of how nanomedicine is used today to detect and treat cancer.

1. Quantum Dots are man-made nanocrystals that glow under ultraviolet light. When mixed with biological agents like antibodies or peptides, they stick to cancerous cells inside the body. This flags the cancer cells with fluorescence, so that contrast imaging can define the precise boundary between healthy and diseased cells for highly targeted therapy.

Quantum dots bonding to cancer cells

Quantum dots bonding to cancer cells.

2. Gold Nanoshells go one step further. These nanoparticles have a silica core surrounded by an ultra-thin gold shell. Changing the ratio of the core diameter to the shell thickness tunes the absorption and scattering properties of the nanoshell. This allows them to detect and bond to specific biological markers found on cancer cells. Irradiating the nanoshells with an infrared laser heats them up and destroys the diseased cells.

How gold nanoshells work: a silica core is seeded with gold hydroxide to grow an ultra-fine gold shell, which heats up to destroy cancer cells in the body

Gold nanoshells can target and destroy cancer cells.

Gold nanoshells aren't limited to cancer treatment. They can also be heated under infrared light to destroy bacteria to sterilise medical instruments. And they can repair arterial walls damaged in surgery—as a nanoscale welding material subjected to infrared laser that's harmless to the body.

3. NAB Technology stands for nanometre albumin-bound technology and is used to target breast cancer. The standard therapy for breast cancer is to use taxanes (drugs that block cell division) which are highly toxic due to their solvents. Nanomedicine overcomes this by binding solvent-free taxanes to the protein albumin and exploiting its natural desire to bind to SPARC (an acidic protein secreted by cancer cells). Used this way, the same cancer drugs become non-toxic and more effective.

Future Nanomedicine Technology

Here are some up-and-coming applications for nanomedicine. These are not flights of fancy—but actual nanotechnologies that have been seriously conceptualised and/or are in clinical development:

1. Nanodentistry will allow for near-perfect oral health with the use of nanomaterials in tissue engineering and nanorobots. One day in the not-too-distant-future, you'll use a mouthwash containing dental nanorobots that clean organic residues from your teeth, gums, and tongue. Dentifrobots move actively at 10 microns/second, and can even selectively destroy pathogenic bacteria and prevent halitosis. They are safely deactivated when swallowed.

In the future of nanodentistry, dentifrobots in mouthwash will clean your teeth, gums, and tongue with precision

A dentifrobot visualised by the American Dental Association.

2. Microcarriers will serve as non-viral delivery vectors for gene therapy. Traditionally, gene therapy uses inactive viruses to transport genetic payloads to target cells. However, this isn't always safe or efficient. Microcarriers made of degradable polymers and silica shells will carry the therapeutic genes to their destination so cells can synthesise essential proteins.

3. Neuralnanorobots will link computers to your brain, allowing for brain-computer interfaces as well as brain-to-brain communication between people. Not only will this correct a raft of neurological disorders, but it will change the way we think, work, and play. A neuralnanorobotic-mediated BCI could be available within 20-30 years.

There are more than 50 nanomedicines and nanoparticle tools approve for use by the FDA. More are coming, and at an increasing rate, with both preventative and treatment angles under target. If you haven't already, you will almost certainly benefit from nanomedicine in your lifetime.

In the 21st century, we'll say goodbye to many common injuries and diseases including dental cavities, nerve damage, heart disease, infertility, depression, cancer, and even pandemics. Nanomedicine technology is here and the possibilities are breathtaking.

Becky Casale Bio

Becky Casale is the creator of Science Me. She's studying for a BSc and raising two small humans so parts of her DNA can live a bit longer.