Cellular Surgeons: The New Era of Nanomedicine

The power of nanotechnology was explored last Thursday night at Hunter College during a World Science Festival event “Cellular Surgeons: The New Era of Nanomedicine.” Three prominent nanotechnology researchers discussed the direction of their highly complicated field, keeping the language at a level that non-scientists could understand. You can find the hour and a half long discussion here. The technologies discussed could eventually revolutionize many medical fields including neuroscience.

The conversation began with a video that demonstrated how a nanometer scales with much larger, visualizable objects of our world. One meter contains 10^9, or 1,000,000,000 nanometers within it. The video showed that if one were to blow up the diameter of a human hair to the size of the empire state building (443m), then at this scale a red blood cell would be about ten stories tall, a bacterium would reach the 3rd floor, an averaged sized protein molecule would be about the size of a toy poodle, and a nanometer would rise less than a quarter of an inch.

Roboticist Metin Sitti, professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said that one nanometer is about the length your fingernail grows in one second.

Clinical Applications
Sitti’s star shaped micro-scale robot is an interesting prototype machine that could eventually perform micro-scale manipulations in the body. Perhaps one day this robot could surgically reconnect severed nerve bundles. Watch it hammer in a micro nail (43 minutes, 40 seconds).

Sitti also showed off his M.A.S.C.E (magnetically actuated soft capsule endoscopy), a magnetically controlled pill that scoots through a digestive system, taking pictures, biopsies, and delivering drugs to specified locations. Check out the video at 35 minutes, 45 seconds.

Omid Farokhzad, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and member of the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, shared his video simulation of a chemotherapy delivering nanoparticle that one of his labs is working on (59 min 10 seconds). Farokhzad explained that the small size of nanoparticles allows them to roam the body undetected by the immune system. Once the nanoparticle detects a tumor, like a Trojan horse it will make contact and get pulled into the cell where it will then release its chemotherapy payload, killing the cancer.

Because nanoparticles can be engineered to home in on specific cell types, their use as an imaging aid is currently under exploration by other researchers. At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), Drs. Michelle Bradbury and Cameron Brennan have teamed up with Cornell University Professor of Engineering Ulrich Wiesner to design a nanoparticle label for PET scans. According to a MSKCC press release, this novel imaging platform could help by “…defining tumor borders for surgery, and improving real-time visualization of small vascular beds, anatomic channels, and neural structures during surgery.”

What’s Next?
As the number of peer-reviewed articles on nanotechnology rises each year, so too rises the chance to discover some kind of breakthrough in the field of nanomedicine. In 1997, there were cumulatively about 20,000 peer-reviewed articles on nanotechnology in US publications, by 2007 this number had risen to 120,000. Keep an eye out for future nano-scale ideas to solve mega-scale problems.

– Charles Sadle

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