Medical technology is big business, and some of the biggest advances may soon come from devices built on the nanoscale. Two researchers are using nanotechnology that may one day sense, diagnose, and even treat cancer. "Nanotechnology: Super Small Science" is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with the National Science Foundation.
Nanotechnology -- Nano-Enabled Sensors and Nanoparticles
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Medical technology is big business, from advanced prosthetics to robot assisted heart surgery, to high-definition ultrasound and x-ray imaging. But the biggest advances in this field may soon come at the smallest of scales-- the nanoscale, measuring just a billionth of a meter in size.
Two researchers are at the forefront, designing nanotechnology that may one day be able to sense, diagnose, and even treat cancer.
DONGLEI FAN (University of Texas at Austin): Nanosensors can work like our eyes, our nose, our tongues, our ears. And the nanosensors can do all these five senses.
SNOW: Donglei Fan runs the Nanomaterial Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is combining nanotechnology with robotics to develop nanosensors with new capabilities that weren't possible before.
Nanosensors are already used in some common devices, like car airbags that can feel a collision and know when to deploy. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Fan and her team are currently developing nanosensors that are 20 to 25 nanometers in size-- about 50,000 times smaller than a grain of sand. They’re small enough to be implanted inside a patient's body, and yet powerful enough to detect single molecules.
FAN: We want to get the materials into nanoscale which actually have a comparable size to these molecules we want to detect.
SNOW: The nanosensors are designed to hunt and identify specific molecules that are only produced by cancer cells. They are looking for specific types of biomarkers- tiny indicators of an ailment inside the body, like a malignant change to a gene.
These nanosensors will be able to diagnose cancer at its earliest stage, and be able to make a diagnosis in a fraction of the time it takes today.
FAN: With traditional sensors, if the detection needs 10 hours, we only need to have around a few minutes to detect the presence of molecules with the technique we are developing.
SNOW: To allow the nanosensors to move freely inside a patient's body, Fan's team has also engineered nano-sized robots that propel themselves with a high speed spin.
FAN: We control the speed by applying the electrical voltage and then we achieve ultra-high speed rotation.
SNOW: While Fan's nanosensors will one day rotate and move through the body to help us detect cancer, other scientists are using nanotechnology to develop treatments that may in the future help treat cancer, by analyzing the same biomarkers used to detect it.
PAULA HAMMOND (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Cancer is a disease that is the result of changes in the gene. And these changes essentially are changes in the DNA.
SNOW: Paula Hammond, an NSF-funded professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has developed a process to construct nanoparticles that deliver chemotherapy drugs to attack cancer cells without impacting healthy cells.
HAMMOND: We are designing a nanoparticle system, in which, we can incorporate RNA that will turn off the genes that allow tumor cells to survive, and that will be in the outer layer of our nanoparticle. In the meantime, inside the nanoparticle, we’ll have chemotherapy drugs which will be released a little bit later.
SNOW: The nanoparticles Hammond is developing will not only be able to find and treat cancer anywhere in the body because of their small size, but will do so without causing painful side effects.
HAMMOND: You want to be able to get the drug to cancer cells without impacting the healthy cells in the body so that you don’t have these terrible side effects. It can really impact someone’s life, and this is something that for us is incredibly important.
FAN: I would envision if we can successfully develop the sensors completely into what we want. I think with really, truly useful sensors, our lives will be greatly changed.
HAMMOND: By developing cutting-edge nanosensors and sophisticated nanoparticles, Fan and Hammond hope to make a huge impact on medicine and the world of nanotechnology.
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