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Nanotechnology: What Is It and How Is It Used in Medicine?

Last updated April 8, 2015

Studies are underway for direct application of the technology in cancer treatment protocols.

A “Nanometer (nm)” is one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology refers to science and technology conducted at the nanoscale, between 1-100nm. Richard Feynman, a physicist from the California Institute of Technology, first talked about the concept in 1959 and is considered the father of nanotechnology, although Prof. Norio Taniguchi of Tokyo University of Science coined the term “nanotechnology” in 1974. The technology allows one to control and manipulate individual atoms and molecules.

Materials prepared in the nanoscale offer advantages of better strength and greater chemical reactivity. These materials, called nanomolecules or nanoparticles, are also lighter. The benefits of nanotechnology are already being realized in the cosmetics industry and are currently being explored in medicine. The technology is anticipated to yield innovations in oral health-related diagnoses and therapies. Not only are nanoparticles being used to build better instruments, but they are also being investigated for accurate and early detection of cancer using available, standard detection techniques. Studies are underway for direct application of the technology in cancer treatment protocols as well.

Early and accurate detection of cancer: Nanotechnology is being combined with a computer tomography (CT) scan to detect tumors. Using gold nanoparticles, which give better contrast, Popovtzer and coworkers were able to accurately detect head and neck cancer at the cellular and molecular level with a standard clinical CT. The authors believe that the imaging technique using nanoparticles will “lead to significant improvements in cancer therapy due to earlier detection, accurate staging, and microtumor identification.”

Targeted Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy for cancer often has varied and unpleasant side effects. Targeting tumor cells while leaving healthy cells relatively unharmed is the goal of many cancer treatments. This appears within the realm of possibility due to nanoparticles, which are 100 times smaller than human red blood cells and able to permeate tissue. Targeting cancer cells using their unique extracellular receptors signature, nanoparticles loaded with toxic chemotherapy medicines can be directly delivered to the cancer cell/tissue, avoiding harm to the surrounding healthy cells. The cancer cells undergo the process of cell death and eventually, the tumor is likely to get eradicated.

Localized and amplified radiotherapy: Radiation therapy is a standard approach in cancer therapy. Like chemotherapy, the goal is to kill cancer cells and not harm the healthy surrounding ones. For this purpose, nanomolecules are directly injected in the tumor cells and then activated by X-ray. The activated nanoparticles are optimized to kill the cancer cells. This kind of localized and amplified radiation therapy does lead to standard X-ray exposure to healthy cells, but since the cancer cells die at a faster rate, the harm is considered minimal.

The multifaceted approach of nanotechnology in the field of cancer therapy is fascinating and seems to be making progress at a fast pace, as evidenced by several ongoing clinical trials. Many of these trials are currently recruiting study subjects. Thus, accurate, early detection and targeted therapy for different types of cancer seem well within reach in the near future.

 Written by Mangala Sarkar Ph.D.


What is Nanotechnology? Retrieved from http://www.nano.gov/nanotech-101/what/definition

Glass, N. (2013 Oct 10). Fighting Cancer with Nanotechnology.Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/videos/business/2013/10/10/spc-make-create-innovate-nanoparticles.cnn

Ozak, S.T., & Ozkan, P. (2013) Nanotechnology and Dentistry. European Journal of Dentistry, 7(1), pp.145–151. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3571524/

Nanotechnology and Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/medicine/

Nanomedicine. Retrieved from https://uwaterloo.ca/institute-nanotechnology/about-waterloo-institute-nanotechnology

Popovtzer, R., Agrawal, A., Kotov, N.A., Popovtzer, A., Balter, J., Carey, T.E., & Kopelman, R. (2008). Targeted Gold Nanoparticles Enable Molecular CT Imaging of Cancer. Nano Letters, 8(12), pp. 4593-4596. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2772154/

Kwatra, D., Venugopal, A., & Anant, S. (2013). Nanoparticles in Radiation Therapy: A Summary of Various Approaches to Enhance Radiosensitization in Cancer. Translational Cancer Research, 2(8), pp. 330-342. Retrieved from http://www.thetcr.org/article/view/1550/html


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First uploaded: April 8, 2015
Last updated: April 8, 2015