Nanotechnology, the science of working with particles that are one billionth of a meter, is enabling scientists to change gene expression on the cellular level, potentially curing a host of diseases. Photograph: Martin Barraud/Getty Images/Caiaimage
Here’s how cancer treatment often runs today: a patient develops an aggressive tumor. A surgeon operates to remove the tumor, but a few cancer cells remain, hiding in the body. Chemotherapy is administered, weakening both patient and cancer cells. But the cancer does not die; it comes back and eventually kills the patient.
Now imagine another scenario. After surgery, strands of DNA anchored in tiny gold particles are injected into the affected area.
Just like that, all the tumor cell stragglers are rendered harmless, corrected on the genetic level. The patient is cured, and without having to endure months of chemotherapy and its brutal side effects: hair loss, nausea and extreme weakness.
The future of medicine won’t focus on treating the symptoms of a disease, according to reseachers: it will focus on curing it at the genetic level.
Nanotechnology, the science of working with particles that are one billionth of a meter, is enabling scientists to change gene expression on the cellular level, potentially curing a host of diseases.
“Nanotechnology medical developments over the coming years will have a wide variety of uses and could potentially save a great number of lives,” says Eleonore Pauwels, senior associate and scholar at the Wilson Center, an interdisciplinary policy research center.
The science of using nanoparticles got its start with a lecture by theoretical physicist Richard Feynman in 1959, but because of the technical challenges, it is only in the past 10 years or so that the technology has really taken off for practical medical applications.
Figuring out how to consistently create the right nanoparticle, get it into the right tissue, ensure it is not degraded and does what it was programmed to do, took some time.
The science of nanotechnology depends on the fact that when things get super small, they function differently. Protein, for example, is a naturally occurring nanoparticle. A single protein molecule is a very different entity than a human being, which is made up of many protein molecules.
Gold, which is used often in medicine, is red when broken down into tiny particles. That microscopic bright red color has been used for centuries to give red stained glass its color.
“Because of their small size, engineered nanomaterials have unique properties that do not exist at the larger scale: increased surface area, charge, reactivity and other physicochemical properties, all of which may affect how nanomaterials interact with biological entities, like cells,” says Sara Brenner, assistant professor of nanobioscience at SUNY Polytechnic Institute.
Scientists are learning to take advantage of those properties to create new treatments. One of the most powerful examples uses DNA, says Chad Mirkin, a professor at Northwestern University and director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology.
DNA is rod shaped and normally would not be able to enter cells, which have developed protection against entry from foreign DNA segments. But by using nanotechnology, many little snippets of DNA can be attached to a tiny, round synthetic core. The receptors on cells that would block rod shaped DNA do not recognize the tiny spheres of DNA and allow it to enter.
Using that property, a whole new class of treatments for genetic diseases is being developed.
By being able to insert DNA into existing cells, scientists can “attack disease at its genetic root and turn off receptors that regulate how a cell functions, stopping a disease pathway in its tracks,” explains Mirkin.
Right now, most of the research into developing therapies using spheres of DNA is focused on disease of the liver, says Mirkin, as anything a person takes in is going to be processed in the liver. Another area of research into nanotech treatments is the skin, as the treatment can be applied topically, making it easy to target one area.
“Potential applications are virtually endless,” explains Brenner. “But some areas of investigation right now for gene therapy are cancer, diabetes, AIDS, cystic fibrosis and heart disease.”
As research into using nanoparticles advances, scientists hope to be able to not just turn off specific signals in cells, but also eventually insert genes to correct for defects and cure more complex diseases. Called gene therapy, it would involve inserting larger fragments of DNA into cells that have faulty DNA. For example, cystic fibrosis is caused by a defective gene called CFTR. If scientists can figure out a way to get a non-defective copy of the gene into the cells and correct it, they could cure the disease.
“Approximately 4,000 diseases have been found to have a genetic component and are therefore potential targets for gene therapy,” according to Brenner.
While nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize medicine and how we view treatment of diseases, there are still kinks to work out. Some of the challenges with nanotechnology include how to get nanoparticles into the right cells and tissues, and how to get them into the cells safely without the nanoparticles degrading.
Nanotechnology is still in its infancy, however. It’s only recently that we were able to produce microscopes that allowed us to see and manipulate nanoparticles.
Research requires bringing together a number of disciplines like chemistry, biomedical engineering, biology and physics. But pharmaceutical companies have already begun work on creating treatments using nanotech, and many are in various stages of development now. “It’s not a pipe dream,” says Mirkin. Being able to cure genetic diseases of all kinds is on the horizon.