"Take two nano-pills and call me in the morning." Sound strange? Maybe we'd better get used to it. Chances are, advances in nanomedicine are going to force us to rewrite that familiar punch line since it's rewriting the medical books, too.
Let's start with the big picture -- the National Nanotechnology Initiative's proposed budget for 2012. A full 21% of the budget -- $147.9 billion -- is devoted to biomedical research. And that's just a small proportion of the work going on. Corporate and university researchers all over the country and around the globe are vigorously pursuing nanotechnology health solutions. Literally thousands of research papers are published annually. Even a cursory survey of patents shows incredible activity there, too.
And none other than best-selling author and futurist Ray Kurweil reminds us that human biology itself takes place at the nanoscale, so nanotech and medicine are obvious allies. In fact, he mentions that there are some 50 experiments in the works with animals that use nano-engineered devices the size of red blood cells to address diseases like diabetes and cancer.
And the successes are not all in the future. Nanotechnology is making a difference in the health care today. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies includes dozens of currently marketed products on its list consumer nano-products: cholesterol drugs, immunosuppresants, anti-aging cream, toothpaste and more.
Even the briefest review of developments in the nanomedicine landscape could fill a textbook in fact, it does. Let's focus on just a few: oral nanomedicines, nano-diagnostics and topical nanomedicines.
A "nano-pill" can be a game-changer in medical treatment. By decreasing the particle size of the therapeutic ingredients, it's possible to increase its bodily absorption. This can mean higher impact and faster action. Anyone who's ever had a headache would appreciate that one. Now imagine the relief of someone being treated for pneumonia or malaria. In my reading on the topic, I came across a couple of examples that I thought were particularly interesting. Researchers are looking at new ways to improve the time-release capabilities of ibuprofen, perhaps a boon for arthritis patients. On an even more serious note, there's work on time-release dopamine to aid sufferers of Parkinson's disease.
The area of nano-diagnostics is seeing immense expansion, too. Nearly everyone has heard about orally administered drugs that include nanomaterials which are absorbed by cancer cells but not healthy ones, allowing for more targeted therapy. But that's just the start. Here are a couple of recent breakthroughs that caught my eye. Researchers are using gold nanoparticles that are absorbed by the plaque deposits in the brain that may be responsible for Alzheimer's Disease. This allows the disease to be spotted earlier and may allow for development of early-stage treatment or prevention.
And my favorite? Evidently, trained dogs are capable of detecting melanomas by sniffing the skin. That fact was the inspiration for a nanotechnology-enabled "electronic nose" which may be capable of detecting head and neck cancer by sniffing a subject's breath.
Topical nanotech-enhanced products are already here. There are dermal and non-dermal treatments designed to repel insects, block UV sunlight and fend off bacteria, creating enhanced surface bioactivity. One of the interesting developments in this field is the application of the same nanostructures used in antibiotics as nanofilm additives. The hope? These nanofilms could eventually be used to make all surfaces capable of fighting infection and bacteria, even superbugs like MRSA.
As they say at the end of television commercials for pharmaceuticals, "Ask your doctor about..." I think you're going to hear a nano-prescription for a healthier world. Welcome to a nano-miraculously healthy future.
Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio.