Technology is making everything smaller and smarter these days, it seems – from cellphones and cars to computers and cameras. It makes sense that scientists would look for a way to make medicine smaller and more technologically advanced, too.
Imagine receiving a vaccine, taking an inhaler, or applying a topical cream that would release nano-sized particles specifically designed to seek out and stop cells harming the body. With the help of nanotechnology, scientists are well on their way to engineering new ways to study, diagnose, treat, and prevent both common medical conditions, as well as some of the leading causes of death.
“The beauty of the nanomedicine component is you're not only creating and designing what is potentially a very potent therapeutic … but you're also overcoming the delivery problem in some cases,” says Dr. Chad Mirkin, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University, and a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
Nanomedicine – the application of tailored nanotechnology in a healthcare setting – though still in its infancy, has particularly taken off within the last decade. Scientists across the world are branching off in new directions to use nanomedicine to treat a range of different conditions, from cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases (such as COPD) to psoriasis, diabetes, and even cancer.
“With the Human Genome Project and all the different pathways that regulate how we function, we have an enormous number of targets we could go after,” Mirkin says of the possibilities for nanomedicine to expand.
The ability to restructure nanoparticles also gives them a sort of multifunctionality that wasn’t possible before.
“To particularize things such that they're efficiently delivering medicines or antigens or adjuvants, that's really what nano is able to do for us,” says Joseph DeSimone, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.