The use of nanotechnology in healthcare is opening new frontiers across the life sciences industry. With the ability to manipulate matters at atomic levels, nanotechnology has huge potential to revolutionize myriad aspects of medical care, including diagnostics, disease monitoring, surgical devices, regenerative medicine, vaccine development, and drug delivery. It is also opening doors to better treatment options for various diseases through advanced research tools that can be used for drug discovery.
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology deals with the engineering of systems at the atomic and molecular level. It combines components of molecular chemistry and physics with engineering to gain an advantage over the unique changes to the properties of materials that occur at a nanoscale.
A major challenge facing the healthcare industry is the human body’s inability to sometimes absorb entire doses of drugs. This is where nanotechnology comes into the picture. Nanotechnology can be used to transport the drug to specific cells in the body, which not only ensures a more precise treatment but also reduces the chances of failure or rejection.
The ability to examine the human body, its drug therapies and medical devices at the nano level, ultimately ensures a much higher level of accuracy in medicine. The healthcare industry is leveraging this technology for two broad applications: Diagnostics and medical devices, and nanomedicine. With the rapid advancement in nanotechnology, the scope is endless for further development of new diagnostics and treatments with higher success rates.
Here are the four major ways in which nanotechnology is changing the future of healthcare:
Nanomedicine applies nanotechnology in healthcare applications such as treatment and diagnostics of various diseases using nanoparticles in medical devices, as well as nanoelectronic biosensors and molecular nanotechnology. Nanomedicine is currently being used to develop smart pills and for treating cancer.
The term ‘smart pills’ refers to nano-level electronic devices that are shaped and designed like pharmaceutical pills but perform more advanced functions such as sensing, imaging, and drug delivery. Nanotechnology has previously helped in developing various kinds of smart pills, such as the PillCam, a capsule with a miniature video camera, and dose-tracking pills.
More advanced smart pills being developed include the ‘Atmo Gas Capsule’, which when ingested, examines the gases in the human gut to report any disorders. Its sensors can help detect the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, as well as the presence of any harmful substances. Its applications include diagnosing gastrointestinal disorders, detecting malignant digestive organs, and tracking food sensitivities to enable personalized diet and nutrition plans.
Meanwhile, MIT is creating ‘Smart Sensor Capsules’, which prevent the need for injecting drugs into the stomach. Delivered orally, it unfolds itself before lodging itself on the organ, tracking vital signs for diagnosis and monitoring treatment. It also contains compartments, which can be used to pre-load medicines to be released into target areas inside the body.
Cancer detection and treatment
A key problem with regular chemotherapy and radiation is the damage caused to the body’s healthy cells during the treatment. New nanomedicine approaches are being used in the treatment of skin cancer, which enables efficient delivery of drugs and other therapeutic treatments to specific tumor sites and target cells with low toxic side-effects.
Nanomedicine is being used to develop a new method for detecting cancer cells in the bloodstream, called NanoFlares. NanoFlares are particles designed to bind themselves to genetic targets in cancer cells and generate light when that particular genetic target is found, thus aiding in their detection. Researchers at UC San Diego are developing a method to collect and analyze nano-sized exosomes to check for biomarkers indicating pancreatic cancer.
Nanobots are micro-scale robots, which essentially serve as miniature surgeons. They can be inserted into the body to repair and replace intracellular structures. They can also replicate themselves to correct a deficiency in genetics or even eradicate diseases by replacing DNA molecules. This property is still under development.
Nanobots are currently being tested to perform eye surgery, through a microscopic needle inserted into the retina. Surgeons can direct this needle using a specialized magnetic field.
Nanobots can also be used to clear artery blockages by drilling through them. Scientists at Michigan State University and Stanford University have partnered to develop nanobots which contain carbon nanotubes, loaded with a drug that can eat away arterial plaque. This can reduce the risk of heart attacks.
Scientists at the University of Toronto are developing nanobots resembling unfolded cubes to perform quick biopsies of suspected malignant masses. These cubes fold up once they reach the target tissue, taking a sample of it. These biopsies are said to be quicker and more accurate than those done by human surgeons.
Nanobots based on DNA are also being created for targeting specific disease cells. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have made an “origami nanorobot” out of DNA to transport a molecular payload. Their team successfully demonstrated how the robot delivered molecules that triggered the death of specific disease cells.
Nanofibers are being used in wound dressings and surgical textiles, as well as in implants, tissue engineering, and artificial organ components.
Scientists are working on developing ‘smart bandages’, which when left on the site, will absorb itself into the tissue once the wound heals. Embedded nanofibres in these smart bandages can contain clotting agents, antibiotics, and even sensors to detect signs of infection.
The Institute of Advanced Study in Science and Technology, India, have developed a pH-responsive smart bandage that can deliver medicine at a pH that is suitable for the wound. This has been done by enhancing a nanotechnology-based cotton patch that uses widely-accessible and sustainable materials like cotton and jute, which make bandages more affordable.
Drug delivery systems based on nanofibers are being used for specific drug release, as per the location of the target and at a set time, to achieve the desired therapeutic effects. Nanofibers use a suitable polymer, large surface-to-volume ratio, increased loading efficiency, and enhanced permeation and retention qualities of the mesh, to achieve immediate drug release.
Vaxxas, a needle-free vaccine delivery company, is working on commercializing their ‘nanopatch’ vaccines, which is essentially a nanofibre patch that uses nanoparticles to deposit the vaccine directly into the immune cells present in the skin. This lowers the risk of infection, easier process, and eliminates the need for vaccine refrigeration.
4. Nanotech-based wearables
The use of cloth-based nanotechnology in healthcare is a new yet popular form of remote patient monitoring. Such wearables have embedded nanosensors in the cloth that record medical data such as heartbeat, sweat components, and blood pressure. It helps save lives by alerting the wearer and medical professionals of any adverse changes faced by the body.
The pioneer of this innovation is Nanowear, a US-based startup. In 2019, it launched NanoSENSE, a heart failure management, and alert diagnostic validation clinical trial. Under this study, they developed SimpleSENSE, a monitoring undergarment and closed-loop machine learning platform.
This garment uses its proprietary and patented, FDA-approved cloth-based nanosensors to capture and record phonocardiography, stroke volume and cardiac output. It also contains multi-channel ECG assessing technology, that keeps track of heart rate variability, respiratory rate, thoracic impedance, activity, and posture.
In July 2020, Nanowear announced a partnership with Hackensack Meridian Health Systems for expanded COVID-19 remote diagnostic research. Their aim is to monitor confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients with Nanowear’s cloth-based nanosensors which can detect physiological and biomarker changes indicative of clinical deterioration, which may need medical assistance.
The long road ahead
Currently, nanotechnology in healthcare still has a lot of hurdles to overcome. More research is needed on the long-term impact of nanotechnology, and its environmental implications. Clearer guidelines need to be set by authorities regarding nanotech-based devices and potential health risks. Nanotech-based devices are often highly-priced which hinders their mass manufacturing. Affordable production alternatives for these devices will aid in making this technology mainstream.
However, there is an increasing sense of optimism that nanotechnology, when applied to healthcare, will be able to bring about significant advances in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of diseases. There is growing interest among innovators in the future applications of nanotechnology in healthcare, and how it can guide the industry into a new era of development.
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