TechKNOW Tomorrow – How Nanotechnology is Improving Healthcare

Image by k_e_n via Medical Device Network.

Since the 1980s, nanotechnologies (materials and devices created on the scale of atoms and molecules) have revolutionized the speed at which technology progresses. Look at the computer, for example. Between the massive computer mainframes built fifty years ago to the mobile phones that can easily fit in our pockets, nanotechnology has clearly made technology in general more accessible than ever.

Today, nanotechnologies have made major leaps in a number of fields. Nowhere is this more prominent than within healthcare. In fact, it’s possible that nanotechnologies will soon be able to cure diseases that we’ve struggled to eradicate for thousands of years.

With all of that said, you might be wondering…

What is Nanotechnology?

Many nanoparticles and nanostructures are naturally occurring in nature, from things like volcanic ash to an insect’s eyes. Structures like these are microscopic and undetectable by the human eye – “one nanometer is a billionth of a meter“!

Nanotechnology, then, is a field of science and engineering that focuses on developing materials and devices on a microscopic scale by manipulating atoms and molecules into new structures. Why is this important? Interestingly, “at such scales, the ordinary rules of physics and chemistry no longer apply“. A material’s properties can literally be altered by rearranging its atoms to make it stronger, lighter, smaller, cheaper to produce, a different colour, or even more conductive.

For example, kevlar vests are created for military and police personnel by using nanotechnology. It’s how these vests are able to block bullets while remaining incredibly light to wear.

Advances In Healthcare

From food monitoring to curing diseases, nanotechnology has a ton of potential in wellness and healthcare. For instance, a grain of salt could be broken down into even tinier fragments, more efficiently adding flavour to our food without the health risks. Silver could be added to food packaging or toothpastes to reduce the risks of harmful bacteria. Nanotechnology could also potentially absorb or neutralize toxic materials that are found in water, ensuring that everyone has access to clean water worldwide.

That said, nanotechnologies are capable of so much more when it comes to healthcare. One of the major developments in medicine has been in delivering drugs effectively. When someone takes medication for depression, for instance, some of the pill is broken down before it reaches its destination, making it far less effective than it would otherwise be.

Researchers at MIT have recently demonstrated that it’s possible to produce a drug directly at the target location – the protein compound that makes up the drug could be produced by nanoparticles after reaching its destination (e.g., the brain).

In addition to this, studying nanocells and nanomolecules was previously impossible due to the limitations of microscopes. Thanks to a recent glass-like innovation that can be added to traditional microscopes, it may soon be possible to “stop disease outbreaks in their tracks, allowing pharmaceutical companies to design better drugs“.

One of the major areas of funding in nanotechnologies has been in cancer research: “researchers at Harvard Medical School in the US . . . made an “origami nanorobot” out of DNA to transport . . . molecules containing instructions that make cells behave in a particular way. In their study, the team successfully demonstrated how it delivered molecules that trigger cell suicide in leukemia and lymphoma cells.

Other researchers have been hopeful of future breakthroughs in cancer treatments that will have a higher success rate than chemotherapy.

Imagine a patient with a cancerous tumour that is removed in surgery. Some cancerous cells remain behind, which are weakened with chemotherapy. These cells, unfortunately, might not die; it’s a gamble whether the patient will survive.

Instead of chemotherapy, researchers are looking into injecting DNA strands with gold particles at the target site. The DNA binds to the remaining cancerous cells, killing them without affecting nearby healthy cells. With more advances in nanoparticles, “scientists hope to be able to not just turn off specific signals in cells, but also eventually insert genes to correct for defects and cure more complex diseases“.

So how long before nanotechnologies are regularly employed in healthcare facilities around the world? Unfortunately, there are a couple of challenges. For one, the debate on whether humans should be “playing God” with gene therapy and cancer cures is a point of contention in the medical community. Another major concern is the long-term effects and safety of planting nanotechnologies in the body. These concerns alone may delay how long it takes for them to be approved.

For more information on some potential advances in healthcare thanks to nanotechnology, check out this infographic!

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