Medical Nanotechnology: What’s Real & What’s Not

Since Elon Musk’s tweet characterizing nanotech as “BS,” there’s been a continuing debate about the practical applications of nanotechnology — and where the dividing line between innovation and hype lies. Medical nanotechnology, where there is a great deal of promise, is no exception.

The idea of nanotechnology, technology at nanoscale — about 1 to 100 nanometers, about 0.000001 of the thickness of a sheet of paper — is decades old. points out that physicist Richard Feynman included the concepts behind nanotechnology in a presentation at the American Physical Society meeting at CalTech in 1959. In his talk, he described a process that would enable manipulating and controlling individual atoms and molecules.

Medical Nanotechnology Applications

It’s not a big leap to see nanotechnology’s potential in medicine, where healthcare challenges often occur at the cellular, gene, or molecular level.

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News that nanotechnology is only in the imagination stage, would certainly come as a surprise to nanobiotechology and nanomedicine companies and researchers. Nanowerk lists nearly 200 medical nanotechnology companies bringing products, applications, and instruments to market.

Granted, some of the work occurring in the medical nanotechnology field is still in the development or testing stages, but researchers are finding success in nanotechnology treatments for diseases and conditions, including:

Innovators in the field of medical nanotechnology are engineering ways to deliver drugs more effectively, such as targeting cancer cells directly with treatments. With nanoparticles that identify and attack cancer cells, patient outcomes improve, and there is minimal damage to healthy cells, which can sustain damage during chemotherapy.

Using nanotechnology, physicians can also deliver heat therapy used in conjunction with chemotherapy with greater precision. In this type of treatment, nanotubes attached to antibodies attracted to a tumor absorb light from a laser, which can incinerate the tumor.

Nanotechnology may also improve upon radiation therapy. Radioactive nanoparticles attracted to tumors can concentrate radiation for greater treatment effectiveness while preserving healthy tissue.

Heart Disease
Nanotechnology applications aren’t limited to cancer treatments. North Carolina State researchers are developing a method to deliver cardiac stem cells to injured heart tissue. Also, Texas Heart Institute scientists have used carbon nanotubes to restore a heart’s electrical function. This treatment could replace electrical cardioversion or defibrillating to correct the rhythm of the heart. And University of Georgia and at the University of Santa Barbara are using nanotechnology to develop new treatments for arterial plaque.

Nanosensors may also be able to detect heart attacks or strokes before the patient does. Nanotech particles can continually monitor blood, looking for endothelial cells, which are present before an attack.

​Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, MIT, and the Children’s Hospital of Boston have developed a diabetes treatment that uses nanoparticles to release insulin when blood sugar levels rise. The researcher’s injectable nanonetwork includes nanoparticles with an insulin core, and modified dextran and glucose oxidase enzymes. When the nanonetwork is exposed to high glucose levels, the enzymes convert glucose to gluconic acid that breaks down the modified dextran and releases the insulin.

Autoimmune disease
Nanotechnology has also shown promise in resetting the immune system to stop attacking a patient’s body. Northwestern Medicine reports nanoparticles have successfully delivered an antigen that tricks the immune system into stopping relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis in laboratory tests on mice.

Other Applications of Medical Nanotechnology

In addition to medical treatments, nanotechnology can benefit the healthcare industry in other ways. Ohio State University has developed a system of LEDs on metal foil that can be used to sterilize medical equipment or water.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) can benefit the healthcare industry by providing AR overlays during surgery, provide primary care physicians with heads-up access to patient records, and enhancing medical education. Nanotechnology is making AR and VR contact lenses possible, which healthcare providers and students can use more naturally — and more affordably— increasing AR and VR adoption.

Where’s Medical Nanotechnology on the Hype Cycle?

In general, most emerging technologies follow a similar journey to market and adoption. Gartner identified the stages of this journey — The Hype Cycle:

  • Innovation trigger: A breakthrough creates excitement.
  • Peak of inflated expectations: Early success stories take the spotlight.
  • Trough of disillusionment: First attempts don’t deliver promised results. Interest bottoms out. Some people may decide the technology is “BS.”
  • Slope of enlightenment: Viable ways the technology can provide benefits begin to take shape and become widely understood.
  • Plateau of productivity: Mainstream adoption begins.

Innovative medical nanotechnology companies won’t be deterred as new systems and solutions follow this progression. You’ll find ways to prevail and bring products to market — and revolutionizing healthcare.

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