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Nanotechnology: A Giant Leap for Medicine

There’s no question nanomedicine will change the healthcare industry

5 min read

In an ideal future, humans will be able to regrow lost organs and limbs, cure in an instant diseases that cause years of pain today, and move away from intrusive methods of treatment. These capabilities hinge on the ability to manipulate the human body at a level even deeper than the cell.

Well, there’s actually a term for that: nanomedicine.

But first, we have to define nanotechnology, which is the manipulation of atoms and molecules up to 100 nanometers in size. For scale, a hydrogen atom is 0.1 nanometers; the width of a human hair is about 100,000; the diameter of Jupiter is—not even gonna go there.

  • Nanomedicine = nanotech + clinical applications, such as tissue engineering, drug delivery, diagnosis, or medical devices.

Nanomedicine was a medical buzzword around a decade ago, and research funding was pouring in from the government and other backers, the Mayo Clinic’s Joy Wolfram told the Brew. Today, that funding is starting to plateau—but that’s not a bad thing: It means after steady uphill progress, nanomedicine is becoming integrated across fields (therapeutics do take decades and billions of dollars to develop, after all).

Some early applications of nanomedicine are already in doctors’ offices. As these capabilities progress, doctors will be using nanomedicine in treatments straight out Shuri’s lab in Black Panther.

Putting it to work

For patients, nanomedicine will usher in an era of care more personal than a sponge bath.

So let’s dive in to some of the roles nanomedicine can play—from early diagnosis to targeted, personalized therapeutics—in the context of cancer, that universally reviled group of diseases that took an estimated 10 million lives last year. 

The smoke alarm

No one on the receiving end of a bad diagnosis thinks “I wish I found out later.”

One of the main projects Wolfram and her team are working on is nanomedicine for cancer diagnostics. Cancer cells release nanoparticles that can travel to other organs and lay the groundwork for metastasis (when the cancer spreads).

By detecting these nanoparticles in the blood early, the researchers are hoping to predict which patients have a high likelihood of metastasis. This could help doctors pinpoint who needs more or less aggressive treatment early on.

The detective

Every patient reacts differently to medicine. Just because doctors know you have something, doesn’t mean they know exactly what your body needs.

Glioblastoma, a particularly pernicious strain of brain cancer, has 142 possible drug treatments; A trial-and-error approach to find the golden ticket can take time—a valuable commodity many patients don’t have.

Today, researchers are using nanotechnology to grow cancer cells on a silicon chip, test all possible drugs, and—in a mere 24 hours—identify the best course of treatment for individual patients, according to Geoffrey Vince, chairman of biomedical engineering at the Cleveland Clinic.

The cruise missile

Cancer treatment generally boils down to two options: cut it out or poison it.

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Chemotherapy today cannot be administered just to cancerous cells, and as that poison runs its course, it can also wreak havoc on the rest of a patient’s body, according to Vince.

But with nanomedicine, doctors could inject treatment into a little bead—”a cruise missile for chemotherapy”—that would only release its payload when it reaches the site of the cancer.

The Trojan horse

Your body does a darn good job of keeping unknown chemicals away from the brain. That’s good…unless you have a neurological disease and suddenly the medicine can’t get to where it needs to be.

Nanomedicine could help treat conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons by masking the drugs so they can slip past biological barriers and get to where they need to be.

How long do I have to wait?

In the next five years, Wolfram expects to see more localized applications for nanomedicine, such as dermatological and cosmetic treatments.

And in the next decade, she expects a flood of nanomedicine applications for more serious conditions, such as organ damage. In 20 to 50 years, she thinks the technology could start delaying the aging process and prolonging human life (don’t get too excited, cause that retirement age will probably go up as well…).

So what does that mean for healthcare?

Investments in clinical trials, R&D for nanorobots, and other treatments are expected to grow the global nanomedicine market by more than 17% annually over the next few years. By 2025, estimates are pegging the field at a whopping $350.8 billion, driven by therapeutics and in-vitro diagnostics.

And with that kind of money involved, you know who else is…Big Pharma. Pfizer, Teva, Johnson Johnson, and Merck are among the drug titans getting in on the nanoaction.

But there are still hurdles. Researchers are facing difficulties reproducing lab results in human patients, and the technology hasn’t started scaling yet.

As far as things go for the average Joe, there’s no question nanomedicine will change the healthcare industry. It will increase efficiency, cut costs, and alter how drugs and devices are developed. It will allow doctors to provide personalized medicine, deliver drugs more effectively, limit harmful side effects, and potentially cure some of the most deadly afflictions.

That’s a lot to remember, so here are the highlights:

  • The promise: Targeted, personalized healthcare that will change diagnosis, drug delivery, and the overall patient experience. 
  • The roadblocks: Nanomedicine still has to pay its dues in clinical trials and scale up its development and manufacturing pipelines. 
  • The projected timeline: Early applications are already on the market. In the next decade, nanomedicine will be used to treat more serious medical conditions. 
  • The major players: Most nanomedicine work is still being conducted in labs across academia and pharma, but it will soon graduate to doctors’ offices near you.
Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.