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Monday, July 25, 2016

Nanotechnology in Medicine

Author: Catherine Cai

What would it feel like, controlling one of the smallest forms of matter? What would it be like to be building structures at the molecular level?
This process happens so frequently in our lives, keeping us alive and maintaining everything around us, that we don't necessarily realize it. Everything that makes us up is done on the molecular scale, and now with developments in science and technology, we can utilize this method through nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology, derived from nano, meaning one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology is a branch of science and technology that deals with the construction of individual atoms and molecules. If you're looking for a career with nanotechnology, you're in luck as it encompasses almost all fields of science.

Nanotechnology has not been recently discovered. It was originally introduced in 1959, by the renowned physicist, Richard Feynman. He discussed the topic in his talk, “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, where he described the possibility of manipulating atoms, including making it possible to fit a whole encyclopedia on the head of a pin. In 1974, the term “nanotechnology” was first used by a Japanese scientist by the name of Norio Taniguchi. Nanotechnology was properly introduced to the public by K. Eric Drexler, who wrote the book, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. This sparked the attention of many. Imagine what people would have thought, being able to fabricate things with atoms—what could we build with this capability?

The first invention to help the field of study was the scanning tunneling microscope (1981), which had the ability to visualize individual atoms and bonds. IBM developers were successfully able to manipulate individual atoms in an arrangement of their company’s logo in 1989 and thus won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In medicine, nanotechnology has been very promising. It can influence the efficiency of drug delivery,
therapy, diagnostic techniques, antimicrobial tech, and even cell repair.

One of the examples, drug delivery, is transporting chemotherapy drugs to cancer cells with the use of nanoparticles. It is currently under development at MIT. Researchers have conducted the experiment on mice that were given lung cancer, one of the world's leading causes of death. The researchers then treated the mice using nanoparticles to target the cancer cells while carrying a drug called phenformin, which is highly effective against metastatic stem cells. The nanoparticle detects the cancer cells through "antibody targeted delivery", which is similar to how natural antibodies work in the body to get rid of foreign pathogens or material. Being attached to the nanoparticle, this method of delivery allows the drug to be released in a sustained and systemic manner, prolonging blood circulation, and giving the nanoparticle enough time to accumulate in tumor tissue. The benefits of this include that this does not induce liver toxicity like most antibodies—for example, doctors may tell you to keep hydrated while taking antibodies to prevent organ failure. This method also shrunk tumors 40% more than other comparable techniques. This technique of using nanoparticles to transport drugs in the human body system can be extended to other drugs in the future.

Nanotechnology is developing very quickly. With the right funding and people willing to partake in this field, the possibilities lie on a wide expanse. Some developments we can expect in the future include having more elegant surgical and diagnostic tools to help reach the tiniest of places, having medical devices permanently implanted, as well as making greater improvements to healthcare, such as making medical practices more accessible and affordable. Notably, research diagnosis could be more accurate and in real time as "nanobots", which are microrobots, can enter the body and travel along the bloodstream to monitor a person's vital functions or chemical levels, allowing for more accurate diagnosis.

There are many developments that have been made and there are still more to come. However, this field of science must be dealt with carefully. With an increased reliance on technology to help bodily functions, our immune systems may deteriorate, making us susceptible to simple diseases once we withdraw.

Editors: Iqra Tariq, Justine Baek

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