Technological advances in the field of nanotechnology have led to the advent of a new field of study, nanomedicine, a pairing of molecular biology and medicine. The diagnosis and treatment of disease at the molecular level will soon be within our reach.
We live in a world of mind-blowing gadgetry our grandparents would have never thought possible. Today, what was once in the realm of science-fiction, like Flash Gordon's spaceship, are passe as we wait expectantly for the next smartphone or computer to be introduced.
While we are titillated by the concept of driver-less cars, smart-highways or Google Glass, there are a number of little known technologies in the medical field that will eventually improve our health and have a broad impact on health care on a global scale.
Imagine if you will, micro-robots traveling through your bloodstream isolating and killing cancerous cells. Think about a maze made of microfibers that will filter seawater, making it possible for thirsty people to have water for drinking purposes. Nanotechnology is here with us today, as in the use of applications in micro-imaging and the development of new antibiotics. There are many nanotechnologies being studied today, and many have medical applications we are just now discovering.
Nanotech and nanofluidics
There are a couple of technologies few people know about, nanotechnology, and more specifically, the field of nanofluidics. Nanotechnology was first discussed in 1959, when Richard Feynman, a physicist, gave a talk called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Nanotechnology is basically the study and manipulation of structures at the molecular and atomic level.
Nanofluidics was also first discussed in 1965, when C. L. Rice and R. Whitehead published a paper in the Journal of Physical Chemistry. Nanofluidics is the study of fluids confined to structures that are of nanometer-sized dimensions. Structures this small approach the molecular level, and it was discovered that fluids in these smaller structures behaved differently from fluids confined to those with larger dimensions.
It is how these two technological applications are being used today in the medical field that makes them both innovative and beneficial. The biomedical implications of the research going on at this time will play a key role in the development of new technologies and applications, from nano-imaging to being able to diagnose and treat diseases at the molecular level.
The lab-on-a-chip or LOC
The technology behind the LOC has been around since 1954. Fabrication of these devices most often uses a process called photolithography. or UV lithography. This is basically a way of using light to transfer a geometric pattern to a light-sensitive chemical on a substrate. A series of chemical treatments then "engraves" the exposure pattern onto, or in some applications, into a new material under the substrate. This process is particularly effective because it can create extremely small patterns, down to a few nanometers in size.
In the 1990's interest grew to include research and commercial uses for the technology. It wasn't until the U.S. military, and in particular, the Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency, or DARPA got involved (because of their interest in the development of portable bio/chemical warfare agent detection systems}, that it was realized the application could be used for non- commercial and other lab processes.
Today, the LOC has been downsized so that a single chip can be only millimeters to a few square centimeters in size. Researchers have developed applications that can examine a DNA strand, gene by gene, or detect and identify cancer cells. In the not so distant future, a single drop of blood or urine will give a clinician a full diagnostic workup, and for less than the cost of a chest x-ray.
Using nanotechnology to treat cancer
The EU-funded NAMDIATREAM ('Nanotechnological Toolkits for Multi-Modal Disease Diagnostics and Treatment Monitoring') is working on using nanotechnology to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The project's team is based at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.
The research team is developing a nanotechnology-based toolkit that can be used for early detection of cancer. The toolkit will have capabilities that will involve the detection and imaging of the biomarkers for the most common forms of cancer. The LOC will have a set of nano-particle reagents and chips that will "visualize" the photo-luminescent, as well as other optical properties in screening for cancer biomarkers.
Using the criteria discussed earlier, a minuscule piece if tissue is mixed with a reagent containing nanomaterials. Using the toolkit's optical illumination properties, researchers can then visualize the distribution of the nanomaterial in the sample and identify the biomarkers of the cancer.
This same technology can be used to identify cell destruction during cancer therapy, as well as disease progression and identification of tumors for selective chemical therapy. The technique works on micro-samples and can be used in a clinical setting or in the field. The versatility and non-invasive procedures used will go far in reducing the cost per test.
Work on the toolkit has proceeded far ahead of expectations, and new prototype kits and probes are being tested on ex-vivo tissue samples from cancer patients as well as laboratory animals. Looking ahead a few years, it is feasible that the world will see this diagnostic tool being used in the very near future.