Advances in nanotechnology are increasingly being utilized in the life sciences. Designs and structures at the nanometer scale are being applied to fields such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and tissue engineering.
The employment of nanotechnology to the field of medicine has particular potential, with new technologies improving drug delivery along with novel methods of diagnosis. Clinical applications of nanotechnology are already occurring and will increase in frequency as current research develops into practice.
Nanotechnology and Drug Delivery
An important development in treatment methods has been the use of nanotechnology for drug delivery. Nanoparticles can be used to transport drugs to target sites, which provide the advantage of reducing accumulation in healthy tissues. This is particularly important in cancer treatment where chemotherapeutic drugs can damage the healthy cells surrounding the tumor.
Nanoscale material is particularly important to cancer treatments because of the enhanced permeability and retention effect (EPR). To supply the demand for oxygen during rapid tumor growth, the blood vessels that are quickly generated contain pores. The leaky blood vessels therefore allow the passage of particles at the nanoscale into the tumor. Fast growing tumors also lack functioning lymphatic systems so drugs delivered by nanoparticles are retained at the site of need.
Research is also being carried out into improving the EPR effect further for treatment that can permeate to the center of the tumor, where oxygen is deprived.
Nanotechnology and Diagnostics
A further life science application of nanotechnology is in the field of diagnostics. In clinical laboratory diagnosis, nanodevices have been developed which can manipulate droplets at the nanoscale.
This lab-on-a-chip technology allows for high throughput detection of DNA and proteins. Nanotechnology has also been employed for immunological techniques which test the presence of antibodies or antigens in a sample.
New developments are applying the technology to portable devices for implementation in the field, an advancement that will be particularly useful for the immediate diagnosis of diseases such as West Nile Virus in poorer regions of the world.
Nanotechnology is also being utilized for quantifying biomarkers of cancer from blood tests, an approach that has previously been limited due to the size of the biomolecules involved.
Nanotechnology and Smart Coatings
Nanotechnology is also used in the production of smart coatings, an added layer of nanomaterial that can improve properties or increase function. Nanocoatings have been applied to stents which are mesh tubes used to treat narrow arteries and prevent the absorption of cells and proteins onto the stent causing it to weaken. Smart coatings have also been developed that can promote drug release when layered on the surface of coronary arterial stents. Biological activity and compatibility can also be increased through nanocoatings. Nanoparticles of hydroxyapatite, an important mineral found in bones and teeth, are coated on biometals for implants and dental prostheses to improve osteointegration.
Nanotechnology for Surgery
There is great potential for the use of nanotechnology in surgery. Nanosurgery can provide minimally invasive procedures which decrease the amount of injury to tissue, reduce scarring and produce a faster rehabilitation time.
Nanotechnology is currently being applied to the manufacture of surgical tools, with a new process of coating microstructured hard metal with diamond nanolayers. These diamond scalpels provide a cutting edge only a few nanometers wide, making them applicable for surgery of the eye and brain.
Nanoneedles for use in plastic surgery suturing have also been developed from stainless steel incorporating nanosize particles. The nanoneedle can also be attached to atomic force microscopes for application at the cellular level. Nanoneedles are able to penetrate through the plasma membrane of the cell leading to the potential for cell surgery. Another possible medical use of this technology is for inducing differentiation from stem cells in preparation for donation to a patient.
By Shelley Farrar Stoakes, MSc, BSc
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