Maybe it all started with the 1960s Isaac Asimov book "The Fantastic Voyage" and its nano-size scientists submarining through a patient's bloodstream to break up a dangerous blood clot. Whatever the genesis, our fascination with the possibilities of the ultra-small in health care is a long-standing one. And today? According to David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, 60%-70% of people put nano-medicine at the the top of their list for nanotechnology research.
Cancer, Alzheimer's, strokes, heart disease -- we're looking for better ways to fight them, and nanotechnology is opening possibilities daily. It's estimated that sales in nanopharmaceuticals will already top $1 billion this year and hit $53 billion by 2011. Another source suggests a worldwide market of $220 billion by 2015, with nano-enabled drug delivery systems eventually making up 90% of all drug delivery.
What's the nano difference? With current technology it can be difficult or impossible to get healing drugs to the place where they're needed in the body. The "cures" damage other tissue on the way to the site, trigger the immune system, can't cross blood or cell barriers, dissolve in the bloodstream before they reach the treatment site, or won't dissolve at all.
A quick check-up shows there's cause for healthy optimism, though. Let's look at some people making progress.
There's a company encapsulating nanoparticles of the active ingredient in a proven cancer-fighting drug in microspheres, helping eliminate sever allergic reactions many patients have to the drug. Another lab is working on temperature-activated coatings for cancer drugs. The coating shields the drug at normal body temperature. When the compound reaches the treatment site, a slight rise in body temperature breaks down the coating, releasing the active drug. Another study is working with magnetism as the "release agent." They link drugs to nano-particles of iron oxide, then use a magnetic force that causes the iron to warm slightly, releasing the treatment.
There's even a university group working on making nano-diamonds a cancer-fighter's best friend. Clusters of diamonds carry chemotherapy drugs, but shield the drug from interaction with normal cells which they can damage.
Stroke victims are likely to be another early beneficiary of nanomedicine. Being able to quickly target and "bust" clots is a lifesaver in Emergency Rooms. A research team is working on a magnetic clot-busting drug that can be drawn toward the clot site by a magnetic field, so drugs get where they're needed quickly, while using smaller doses that reduce the chance of dangerous side effects. Another nano-enabled testing breakthrough gives doctors a precise measure of how much blood thinner a patient can handle without triggering internal bleeding. Patients can get maximum treatment with minimum risk.
Better heart attack care may be just a few heartbeats away, too. Doctors have long tested for heart attacks by measuring the level of a protein released when heart tissue dies. A new nano-enabled test detects levels much lower than traditional tests, enabling earlier detection and treatment -- and longer lifespans!
Here's another lifesaver in the making. Meningococcal disease can be fatal within 12 hours, but current diagnostic tests can take up to two days. Australian researchers have cut the wait time to 15 minutes with a test that uses gold nanoparticles to bind to the killer bacteria, revealing its presence. Wasted hours now give way to immediate care.
Artificial tissue is also on the distant horizon, with scientists all over the country and around the world hard at work engineering nanomaterials. Imagine being able to replace diseased tissue in kidneys, livers and hearts. Complex engineered materials may even lead to therapies for Alzheimer's, nerve injury and even brain damage from stroke.
How far off are these medical wonders? It's impossible to know for sure, of course. But one source says 150 nano-enabled drugs are under consideration by the FDA right now. Another report suggests pharmaceutical companies have several hundred billion dollars worth of pharmaceutical compounds in their portfolio that have just been waiting for a delivery methodology.
I feel better already. Don't you?
Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].