The prefix "nano" stems from the ancient Greek for "dwarf". In science it means one billionth (10 to the minus 9) of something, thus a nanometer (nm) is is one billionth of a meter, or 0.000000001 meters. A nanometer is about three to five atoms wide, or some 40,000 times smaller than the thickness of human hair. A virus is typically 100 nm in size. The ability to manipulate structures and properties at the nanoscale in medicine is like having a sub-microscopic lab bench on which you can handle cell components, viruses or pieces of DNA, using a range of tiny tools, robots and tubes.
Nanotechnology in Healthcare
The world has witnessed various diseases reaching epidemic proportions. Even nowadays, the media reports on new illnesses that have caused thousands of deaths. Since ancient history, experts in the medical field have invested their lifetime, government funds and private financing just to provide better treatments for curable illnesses, find the causes of idiopathic disorders and create the right medicines for previously untreatable conditions. Mankind has reached significant medical milestones already, but there is still so much to do to end suffering caused by diseases. And nanotechnology can greatly help medical professionals to achieve that goal.
The Nano revolution
DRUG DELIVERY - Drug delivery presents a more effective approach to fighting certain diseases, especially if taking the medication can also damage other cells and organs. Extensive research and experiments have been performed to deliver drugs, in nanoparticles, directly to damaged or diseased cells like cancer cells. This allows direct treatment of the affected cells and early detection of diseases. Also, it improves the effectiveness of certain medicines that are poorly water soluble.
ANTI-BACTERIAL - Not all medicines work for certain diseases or pathogens. This is the case for several illnesses caused by bacteria that win the battle against antibiotics, and cause drugs to be ineffective in treating damaged cells. The good thing is that there are studies at advanced stages that focus on using nanotechnology to fight bacteria that don’t respond to antibiotics, like tuberculosis. With nanotechnology, medicine can take a big leap in combating resilient bacteria minus the effects of drugs on other cells or organs. Through this, bacteria can be killed in a safer, more effective way.
DIAGNOSTICS - Research abounds on how the application of nanotechnology can greatly assist doctors not just to detect diseases but to identify them at the earliest stage possible, and at the cellular and sub-cellular levels. Advanced imaging techniques can help identify and monitor damaged cells and tissues to determine if there is a chance that a disease exists. With this, doctors can quickly detect damaged cells, like cancer cells or dementia-affected brain cells, at the onset of the disease, at a point where an early treatment can be made before the illness becomes severe.
MANIPULATING DNA - Therapies that involve the manipulation of individual genes, or the molecular pathways that influence their expression, are increasingly being investigated as an option for treating diseases. One highly sought goal in this field is the ability to tailor treatments according to the genetic make-up of individual patients. This creates a need for tools that help scientists experiment and develop such treatments.
NANOBOTS AND NANOSTARS - DNA-based nanobots are also being created to target cancer cells. For instance, researchers at Harvard Medical School in the US reported recently in Science how they made an "origami nanorobot" out of DNA to transport a molecular payload. The barrel-shaped nanobot can carry molecules containing instructions that make cells behave in a particular way. In their study, the team successfully demonstrates how it delivered molecules that trigger cell suicide in leukaemia and lymphoma cells.
NANOFACTORIES – Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrate the feasibility of self-assembling "nanofactories" that make protein compounds, on demand, at target sites. So far they have tested the idea in mice, by creating nanoparticles programmed to produce either green fluorescent protein (GFP) or luciferase exposed to UV light.
NANOFIBERS - Nanofibers are fibers with diameters of less than 1,000 nm. Medical applications include special materials for wound dressings and surgical textiles, materials used in implants, tissue engineering and artificial organ components. Nanofibers made of carbon also hold promise for medical imaging and precise scientific measurement tools. But there are huge challenges to overcome, one of the main ones being how to make them consistently of the correct size. Historically, this has been costly and time-consuming.
The concerns regarding nanotechnology in healthcare
The greatest of challenges appears to be how to scale up production of materials and tools, and how to bring down costs and timescales.
Another challenge is how to quickly secure public confidence that this rapidly expanding technology is safe.
There are also concerned parties, who highlight that while the pace of research quickens, and the market for nanomaterials expands, it appears not enough is being done to discover their toxicological consequences.
Another challenge is the solubility and persistence of nanomaterials. What happens, for instance, to insoluble nanoparticles? If they can't be broken down and digested or degraded, is there a danger they will accumulate and damage organs? Nano materials comprising inorganic metal oxides and metals are thought to be the ones most likely to pose a risk in this area.
Also, because of their high surface area to mass ratio, nanoparticles are highly reactive, and may for instance, trigger as yet unknown chemical reactions, or by bonding with toxins, allow them to enter cells that they would otherwise have no access to.
Nanotechnology — the science of the extremely small — holds enormous potential for healthcare, from delivering drugs more effectively, diagnosing diseases more rapidly and sensitively, and delivering vaccines via aerosols and patches.
Rich countries are investing heavily in nanotechnology for health. The first generation of cancer drugs delivered via nanoparticles, for example, has already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, it is still early days for nanotechnology in healthcare and whether it will be of value to resource-poor countries is still hotly debated. Critics argue that when millions of people in countries like India or those in Sub-Saharan Africa are dying because of a lack of access to even basic healthcare, investing in cutting-edge technologies is a ludicrous waste of money.
Previous Year Questions
Identify the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that are related to health. Discuss the success of the actions taken by the Government for achieving the same. (2013)
Public health system has limitation in providing universal health coverage. Do you think that private sector can help in bridging the gap? What other viable alternatives do you suggest? (2015)
What do you understand by Fixed Dose drug Combinations (FDCs)? Discuss their merits and demerits. (2013)
Can overuse and free availability of antibiotics without Doctor’s prescription, be contributors to the emergence of drug-resistant diseases in India? What are the available mechanisms for monitoring and control? Critically discuss the various issues involved. (2014)
Why is nanotechnology one of the key technologies of the 21st century? Describe the salient features of Indian Government’s Mission on Nanoscience and Technology and the scope of its application in the development process of the country. (2016)