Nanoparticles - Photo by victorpuntes (Flickr)

Nanotechnology in medicine

How can this multifunctional technique improve quality of life?

By Eveline Shevin

“It is so exciting that I want to use all my time effectively to be able to contribute, life is so short!” says young Maria Strømme, professor in Nanotechnology at Uppsala University in Sweden. She wants to revolutionize the world with her new discovery – and join the growing movement that uses nanotechnology to repair damage and treat illnesses in the body.

It started in 2011 on a Thursday afternoon when her research group tried to synthesize a material of magnesium carbonate that several scientists had failed to make before. After a few alterations in the procedure they forgot about it and it was left over the weekend in the reaction chamber. When the team arrived on Monday they discovered that the material had formed a gel. They had successfully synthesized a material that was impossible to make; they called it Upsalite. Upsalite is a unique material that contains small pores that can be filled with pharmaceutical drugs. According to Strømme, Upsalite could be loaded with a cancer drug, and be cleverly engineered to uniquely identify tumour cells. There is no evidence yet if this works, however ongoing research suggests that this material can improve the solubility of active pharmaceutical ingredients which means that it may have a potential effect in treating cancer.

“It is so exciting that I want to use all my time effectively to be able to contribute” 

 

Another type of nanotechnology, is a magnetized nanocrystal that has been developed by a research team in Australia. This nanocrystal can be filled with a chemotherapeutic drug, swallowed by the patient and targeted to a tumor using magnetic resonance. Apart from the drug, the nanocrystal can also contain antibodies or receptors that recognize and guide them specifically to the cancerous cells. Using magnetic resonance imaging, it is then possible to obtain specific images of the nanoparticles, and therefore clear images of the location of the cancer cells can be obtained. This could be useful for identifying any spread or metastasis of the cancer, which will guide diagnosis, staging and treatment plans. It could also aid planning of surgical interventions, so that minimal tissue can be resected, enabling the patient to recover faster with less trauma. The images could also be used to monitor for relapse. Furthermore, activating the pharmaceutically-loaded nanoparticles, by using ultrasound waves to break and push the nanoparticles apart, allows them to be taken up by the targeted cell and release the drug inside the cell. This provides locally targeted chemotherapy, contrasting to standard chemotherapy which is indiscriminate in terms of the cells it affects; causing side effects such as gastrointestinal symptoms and alopecia.

Magnetized nanocrystals can be filled with a chemotherapeutic drug, swallowed by the patient and targeted to a tumor using magnetic resonance

 

A different form of nanotechnology, known as nanofibers, is hoped one day to be used for treatment of patients with paralysis by inserting an artificial nanostructure in the damaged part of the spinal cord. A research group led by Samuel Stupp developed bioactive nanofibers that self-assemble in the spinal cord. They have an amino acid signal that binds to receptors of neural cells, and when the signal binds to a receptor it stimulates axons to grow in the damaged area. The group injected the nanostructures in the spinal cord of a paralyzed mouse and discovered that the axons crossed through the lesion. After a while the mouse showed signs of movement, indicating that the nanofibers had regenerated the damaged cells. If future human trials show the same effect, this technology could improve the prognosis and quality of life for patients suffering from paralysis after a spinal cord injury.

A different form of nanotechnology, known as nanofibers, is hoped one day to be used for treatment of patients with paralysis

 

Nanomedicine has a bright future ahead in the realm of research and clinical practice, especially in targeting diseases that are difficult to treat due to the absolute requirement for a highly specific intervention such as repairing damaged cells in the human body. Within a couple of years, scientists hope to use nanotechnology in treating oncology patients by simply injecting a nanoparticle loaded with chemotherapy drugs that can specifically recognize cancer cells, leaving healthy cells undamaged. This article has discussed two of the many thrilling approaches of the use of different types of nanotechnology in medicine, and we look forward to seeing how they develop in the future.

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