Medical nanotechnology
(Photo : Reuters/Jonathan Ernst) U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks with Ruchi Pandya from San Jose, California, who was born congenital scoliosis, about her nanotechnology project to test biological samples.

It has been speculated since long by futurists that nanotechnology will revolutionize virtually every field of our lives, medicine making no exception. Nanotechnology focuses on the engineering of materials and devices at a nanoscale, by using building blocks of atoms and molecules.

Medical nanotechnology may be able to extend our lives in two ways. It can repair our bodies at the cellular level, reverse aging and providing a certain version of the fountain of youth, and it can help the medical community to eradicate life-threatening diseases such as stroke, heart attack, HIV or cancer.

By curing life-threatening disease, nanotech can extend the average lifespan far beyond the remarkable achievements of the last century. For instance, the nanotechnology applications in healthcare are likely to minimize the number of deaths from conditions such as heart disease and cancer over the next decade or so. There are already many research programs in place working on these techniques.

Curing cancer could finally become reality, thanks to medical nanotech. Targeted chemotherapy methods based on nanotech use nanoparticle to deliver chemotherapy drugs. 

A separate nanoparticle is used to guide the drug carrier directly to the cancer tumor. Gold nanorods can also be introduced in circulation through the bloodstream. Once they accumulate at the tumor site, they would concentrate the heat from an infrared light, heating up the tumor to a level where its cells die with minimal damage to the surrounding healthy cells.

This heat could also be used in order to increase the level of a stress related protein present on the tumor's surface. Then a drug carrying liposome nanoparticles can be attached to amino acids that bind to this protein. This way, the accumulation of the liposome chemotherapy drug is speeded up by the increased level of protein at the tumor.

Magnetic nanoparticles attaching to cancer cells present in the bloodstream could also allow the removal of cancer cells before they establish new tumors.

Individual research programs like those mentioned above are in place at various private companies and universities. Similar research programs are also sustained at the national level. One of them is a group formed at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, called the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer. The NCI group is catalyzing efforts for targeted discovery and development in order to achieve the greatest advances in the near term and beyond. They are also planning to facilitate the process of handing off those advances for commercial development to the private sector. This alliance includes eight Centers of  Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence as well as a Nanotechnology Characterization Lab.

Similar research projects are in place for studying ways of fighting heart disease, another major killer in our time. Several efforts are going on in this area. For example, researchers at the University of Santa Barbara have designed a nanoparticle able to deliver drugs to the wall arteries plaque.

Extending the average lifespan by repairing cells is another area of interest for medical nanotech. This is perhaps the most exciting application. Our bodies can be repaired at the cellular level by nanorobots. Such technologies are being under development already at various private companies and universities.

For instance, nanorobots might repair our DNA in our cells when it get damaged by toxins in our bodies or radiation. The Nanomedicine Center for Nucleoprotein Machines is studying protein-based biological machines (nano-robots) able to repair damage in our bodies and assist in DNA replication.

The Nanofactory Collorabation is an international group focused on developing the techniques for nanoscale precise manufacturing, The ability to work at this scale will allow manufacturing of unique materials and devices that will feature improved and novel properties.

Recent breakthroughs in medical nanotechnology were announced by various research groups. Among them, it is worth to mention the first self-assembling molecule that open the gate for further manufacturing of state-of-the-art nanomedical devices.

Medical nanotech is also behind the new non-drug therapy called hyperthermia, which comes with the advantage of being non-toxic and with no harmful side effects. A 3D printer at nano-scale is able to manufacture new cancer drugs just by drag-and-dropping DNA. And the list of examples may continue for long. All these revolutionary medical advances are possible thanks to the emerging field of nanotechnology. They will change our lives forever.