The medical area of nanoscience application is one of the most potentially valuable, with many projected benefits to humanity. Cells themselves are very complex and efficient nano-machines, and chemists and biochemists have been working at the nanoscale for some time without using the nano label. Some areas of nanoscience aim to learn from biological nanosystems, while others are focusing on the integration of the organic and inorganic at the nanoscale. Many possible applications arising from this science are being researched.
Implants and Prosthetics
The first field is implants and prosthetics. With the advent of new materials, and the synergy of nanotechnologies and biotechnologies, it could be possible to create artificial organs and implants that are more akin to the original, through cell growth on artificial scaffolds or biosynthetic coatings that increase biocompatibility and reduce rejection. These could include retinal, cochlear and neural implants, repair of damaged nerve cells, and replacements of damaged skin, tissue or bone.
Diagnostics Using Sensors and Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS)
The second area is diagnostics. Within MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems), laboratory-on-a-chip technology for quicker diagnosis which requires less of the sample is being developed in conjunction with microfluidics. In the medium term, it could be expected that general personal health monitors may be available. Developments in both genomics and nanotechnology are likely to enable sensors that can determine genetic make-up quickly and precisely, enhancing knowledge of people’s predisposition to genetic-related diseases.
Drug Delivery Using Nanoparticles and Molecular Carriers
Finally, drug delivery is likely to benefit from the development of nanotechnology. With nanoparticles it is possible that drugs may be given better solubility, leading to better absorption. Also, drugs may be contained within a molecular carrier, either to protect them from stomach acids or to control the release of the drug to a specific targeted area, reducing the likelihood of side effects. Such drugs are already beginning pre-clinical or clinical trials, adhering to the strict regulatory requirements for new pharmaceuticals. Due to this, development costs are often high and outcomes of research sometimes limited.
Lab on a Chip and Advanced Drug Delivery Systems
The ultimate combination of the laboratory-on-a-chip and advanced drug delivery technologies would be a device that was implantable in the body, which would continuously monitor the level of various biochemicals in the bloodstream and in response would release appropriate drugs. For example, an insulin-dependent diabetic could use such a device to continuously monitor and adjust insulin levels autonomously. There is no doubt that this is the direction that current advances in which microfluidics and drug delivery are heading.
Primary author: Professor Stephen Wood, Professor Richard Jones and Alison Geldart.
Source: ESRC The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology report, July 2003.
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