“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” – Albert Einstein
Quoted by one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Einstein forbade technological advancement beyond what we could imagine. Taking nanotechnology into account, these potentially life-saving particles emerged in the 1980s but they have been used as far back as the fourth century!
Nanotechnology is a science that has been applied to many different areas such as energy, industry, technology, medicine and even art. In this article we will be focusing on the medical category, more commonly known as ‘nanomedicine.’ But before we dive into nanomedicine, let’s try and put nanoparticles into perspective. A nanoparticle is between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm) thick. The hair on your head is 80,000 nm, a red blood cell is roughly 6000 nm wide and an Ebola virus is 50nm thick. Try wrapping that around your head.
Although these particles may be smaller than anyone can ever imagine, they are mighty against fatal disease. Let’s divulge into how nanoparticles assist in the diagnosis, targeting and treatment of diseases.
Cancer – A widely accepted form of treatment for cancer patients is chemotherapy. It involves the administration of a combination of toxic drugs into the body which not only destroys cancer cells but also normal tissue around it, with side effects such as hair loss and nausea. Today there are different approaches to diagnose and target cancer strategically. For example engineers at Ohio State University developed polymeric nanoparticles that contain even smaller semi-conducting particles called quantum dots which attach themselves to cancer cell molecules forming a complex. They generate a colour depending on the specific molecule it is attached to (red, yellow or green) which will help scientists to observe these molecules and determine a method of treating the cancer.
Immunity – A one-of-a-kind microscope (a ‘supermicroscope’) in Australia was used by researchers at the University of New South Wales to identify the molecular ‘switch’ that activates T cells. They were able to view images as small as 10 nanometers! It was long believed that T cells were activated by signalling at the cell surface and that molecular clusters formed around the activated receptor. Thanks to this microscope they observed that small vesicles inside the cell act as messengers to up the signal at the receptor and leave, much like a train approaches a station, passengers’ board and the train takes off. This discovery could lead to the treatment of autoimmune disease and even cancer.
Tissue Rebuilding – After treatment for something as destructive as cancer it usually follows with tissue loss. In 2008, a stem cell biologist and a biomaterials engineer from the Northwestern University in Chicago developed nano-engineered gel to assist nerve cell growth by supporting new nerve fibres as they grow. It was tested on mice with spinal injuries and after six weeks they were able to walk using their hind legs.
World’s First Synthetic Windpipe – In the summer of 2011 a Swedish student who was diagnosed with cancer was given a new synthetic windpipe! Developed by a team at the University College London nanotechnology played a vital role in creating a mould using non-biodegradable bicomposite nanomaterial to mimic human tissue. This mould was dissolved in ionised water leaving honeycomb-like structures into which stem cells were introduced to induce cartilage production.
Any type of new treatment comes with a number of risks. What are the risks of nanotechnology?
For one there are concerns of inflammation. Nanoparticles are extremely tiny making them hard to track as they traverse through the body. They have high surface reactivity which is beneficial in treatment effectiveness by reducing cost and drug dosage. But since immune cells have a high affinity for foreign particles they may be prone to inflammation which could lead to other complications such as asthma, cardiovascular disease or even cancer.
In the examples we provided above things are looking up for nanotechnology. But what if we beat nanotechnology? What if we found a method that is more efficient?
In an article published on November 2015 an international team of scientists from Australia and Germany genetically engineered a diatom algae (a unicellular, photosynthesizing organism with cell walls of the same porous material as used in developing nanoparticles) that successfully killed 90 percent of cancer cells without harming surrounding tissue. These diatoms can get the job done just as well as the nanoparticles at half the cost and minus industrial materials. Basically we found the technology of nanoparticles in nature itself.
Overall it is safe to say we are expecting more from this newly explored area of technology and more discoveries where tiny particles invisible to the naked eye restore functionality in larger mechanisms within complex organisms such as humans.
Written By: Sadiya Badurdeen