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Nanomedicine is here: But don’t get too excited just yet

by Peter Moulding Published on 25th Nov 2015

by Peter Moulding Published on 25th November 2015

In his most recent round of predictions for the near future, Google’s ‘genius’ futurist Ray Kurzweil, has claimed that soon “we will have “nanobots” in our blood stream” that will keep us healthy at the cellular and molecular level. In fact, he goes even further, saying that nanomedicine devices will be a “billion times more powerful than they are today in 25 years, and will continue the accelerating path to radical life extension.”

Kurzweil, and many others, have their heart set on nanotechnology as the most promising path to better medical care. Especially in the last few years, this field of science has been attracting a lot of attention. But just how likely is Kurzweil’s prediction that its advancement will revolutionize the industry?

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is an extremely broad term for the manipulation of matter at the atomic level. A nanometer is about three to five atoms wide, roughly 40,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Technology on this scale would be able to make repairs, or influence human biology, on the cellular level. Predictions for nanomedicine are numerous, and range from more efficient drug delivery to being able to “send nanobots into living people’s brains and extract memories of people who have passed away.”

The technology is still in the early stages of development, and is being researched in a number of scientific and medicinal fields, including physics, chemistry, biology, material science, and engineering. Though, through the skill of the craftsman, primitive manipulation on the nanoscale has been around for much longer than initially thought, with pre modern examples, from the 4th century onwards, such as stained glass windows, decorative materials, and in some forms of weaponry.

From the nineteenth century a greater understanding of the nanoscale has fused with improved technology, leading to more powerful microscopes able to see individual atoms, and IBM, the first company to directly manipulate specific atoms, ushering in the applied use of nanotechnology. The early 2000’s saw consumer products developing in this field, with materials resistant to denting, improved displays, better cosmetics, and much more.

In the last five or so years, developments have led to huge injections into medicine. Nanostructures, nanoelectronics, and patterning have opened up an entirely new field which could involve medical applications of nanomaterials, biological devices, sensors, and machines, otherwise known as nanobots.

Where is nanomedicine at?

At the moment, when discussing the application of nanomedicine, words such as “could” and “potential” are used as standard procedure within scientific communities and the media. However, technology really is progressing. Two companies, Second Sight and Bionic Vision, are both using nanoscale electronic components to partially restore some sight for individuals blinded by degenerative eye disease.

Second Sight’s technology, the Argus II, uses an array of electrodes implanted behind the retina to stimulate healthy cells. Connected to a camera, the implant relays a fuzzy, light to dark, video feed. Bionic Vision say they are currently developing a high-acuity device with 256 electrodes, which compared to previous double digit prototypes would increase sight dramatically. A research team in Israel, though, have gone one step further, testing an implant that consists of over 676 electrodes on pigs, and are looking at human prototypes that reach up to 5000, with their target being “20/20” vision.

Drug delivery is another area in which excitement has been rumbling. Nanoparticles are being designed to deliver drugs, heat, or light, to specific cells in the body. There are currently tests in progress for targeted delivery of chemotherapy drugs. The company Cytimmune has developed a ‘nanotherapy platform’, called Aurimune. This is a trojan horse of the medicinal world that will travel through the body to vulnerable points, such as tumors, and destroy the defensive structure, opening the way for further treatment to eradicate the disease.

Other teams, such as the one at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, are studying nano devices that clear life-threatening obstructed blood vessels. At the University of Illinois, researchers have found that gelatin nanoparticles laced with medications that can be delivered directly to the brain, bypassing the blood-barrier, enhancing treatment to the injured regions.

Other areas of treatment include therapy techniques, where nanosponges absorb toxins from the bloodstream, nanotube covered lenses producing noninvasive soundwaves to blast diseased areas of the body, and bismuth nanoparticles to concentrate radiation. Diagnostic techniques, where nanotubes are embedded under the skin to monitor levels of nitric oxide in the blood are being researched, alongside attaching nanoparticles to molecules to indicate the start of an infection.

The list goes on, and on. Nanotechnology, although still at a relatively formative stage, is well and truly on the move, and there are numerous areas of promising research continuing to push the boundaries.

What is the future for nanomedicine?

Earlier this year scientists at the University of California, published in the journal ACS Nano, delivered a consignment of nanoparticles into the stomach lining of a mouse. The machines are only 20 micrometers long, made with polymer tubes, and are designed to dissolve in the stomach tissue to deliver their drugs. This study represents the first major step toward the huge goal of doing the same in humans. The team say they need to “further evaluate the performance and functionalities” of this nanotechnology, before moving to human trials.

Nonetheless, at the moment, there are only a few instances of nanomedicine making it to the human trial stage. Those include fluorescent particles that highlight tumor cells, preventative applications to decrease the damage to certain cells during other treatment, and the commercial successes of Second Sight and Bionic Vision.

In a study called ‘Future impact of technology on medicine and dentistry’, published in the Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology, researchers propose what the next 20 years of nanomedicine will look like. Their conclusions include the manufacturing of nanomechanical devices that would be able to store and execute plans, receive and process signals, and communicate with other nanocomputers. The main focus of their research includes how the machines would be programmable, to allow scientists and doctors to perform precise interventions.

The researchers stated that the visions described in the article may sound 'unlikely, implausible, or even heretic.' Yet, 'the theoretical and applied research to turn them into reality is progressing rapidly.'

Infinitesimal machines, with motors and sensors, onboard computers, power supplies, and possibly arms and legs, could well be swimming through blood streams within the next two decades. Their usage could likely see treatment time for numerous infections fall to a few hours, where antibiotics take weeks. On top of this, microbes would not be able to evolve resistance, as they do to drugs.  

In addition to this, these machines could also be used to perform surgery on individual cells. An article, published in Journal of Evolution & Technology, outlines the ultimate goal of nanomedicine, which the researchers believe is ‘to perform nanorobotic therapeutic procedures on specified individual cells’. They propose the idea of a hypothetical mobile cell repair machine. It would perform very complicated tasks such as chromosome replacement therapy, whereby faulty chromosomes are replaced with artificial defect-free chromosomes.

Huge potential

Although known to be right ‘86% of the time’, Kurzweil’s hopes for nanotechnology may well have burdened the field with an almost impossible target. Particularly the notion that in the 2030s “we are going to send nano-robots into the brain that will provide full immersion virtual reality”. In reality, nanomedicine is still at a rather humble stage of development, with animal trials in many areas, but only a handful of human trials. The technology is progressing, but designs at the moment are simple.

Nonetheless, developments have been significant enough to ensure that initial skepticism regarding the possibilities has now made way for much more serious discussion. The potential impact of nanotechnology is indeed huge.

Instead of unwanted side effects and long treatment times, doctors could deploy machines that act with immense precision and have no side effects, and take little to no time at all. Most exciting of all, physiological data could likely be monitored leading to better understanding of chronic, age-related disease such as Alzheimer’s.

Thus, although currently, the short time frame in which Kurzweil proposes nanotechnology will develop almost exponentially may seem decidedly far-fetched, the concept itself is by no means impossible. Only time will tell.