What is a nanoparticle? A document written in the United Kingdom describes it as, “A particle having one or more dimensions of the order of 100 nm (nanometers) or less.” This is by no means the universal definition but one of many possible acceptable ones. Some nanoparticles are known to be larger than 100 nm. You may wonder what the big deal is, but the definition of a nanoparticle implies that it behaves differently than identicle, larger substances. Now that could be interesting. Enter nanotechnology, scientists building machines smaller than cells that can attack disease on a cellular and genetic level.
How would a nanometric robot work? First, they’re small…really small. An atom is 0.1 nm. The average cell is 2500 nm. If it is 100 nm or smaller, then it would be roughly a thousand times larger than an atom. Just think what that would imply in the world of medicine. Now imagine scientists building a machine that small. What could it do? It could repair damage to DNA, invade tumors and safely disassemble them, and could tell us more about the human body than anybody ever imagined in his or her wildest dreams. It’s a science so new, that many of us can’t imagine, and most people believe it hasn’t even happened. Based upon the same technology as the computer chip, these nanoscopic machines have been being developed, tested, and used by advanced research institutes such as the University of Berkeley.
When we think of nanotechnology, we think of a futuristic science-fiction show set in space in a distant future. If you’re like most people, then the first place you ever heard the word “nanite” was on a television show like Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series envisioned nanorobotics applied to medicine and other microscopic operations, with repairs to delicate machinery, and repairs in dangerous environments being implied. Many alarmists will recall the show also envisioning a more sinister purpose. A fictional race of extraterrestrials called the Borg used nanorobotics to enslave other races, invading the brain on a cellular level and controlling the mind.
While it is unlikely that we will be “assimilated” in the immediate future, incredible discoveries are being made in medicine. Sam Gambhir, M.D., Ph.D., at Stanford University has developed the raman gold nanoparticle, which binds to cancer cells that are illuminated when exposed to light. This can allow for early detection unimaginably far beyond current methods. By observing what cells the nanomachines bind to, doctors can locate tumors that would have been undetectable for weeks, months, or possibly years.
That is only the beginning of this story. The gold particles used in the above mentioned study are seen to get hot when irradiated with light, hot enough to kill nearby cancer cells. Now, on July 8, UCLA researchers working out of the California NanoSystems Institute and Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center showed that mesoporous silica nanoparticles were able to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs and suppress tumors in mice. Yes, the potential for a form of chemotherapy that doesn’t damage healthy tissue.
“Two properties of these nanoparticles are important,” said Jie Lu, lead investigator of the research at UCLA. “First, their ability to accumulate in tumors is excellent. They appear to evade the surveillance mechanism that normally removes materials foreign to the body. Second, most of the nanoparticles that were injected into the mice were excreted out through urine and feces within four days. The latter results are quite interesting and might explain the low toxicity observed in the biocompatabilty experiments we conducted.” The mice were virtually tumor free at the end of the experiment. Further, it was reported that the toxicity of the nanoparticles to the mice was neglible. The point of the research was to determine the probability of development of an anticancer treatment that only targeted cancer cells.
The next step in nanodevelopment is said to be self-replication. These tiny machines will be of little use unless they can repeat their functions. It is perhaps this concept that most frightens alamists. As incredible as this technology is, one cannot help but be a bit intimidated. After all, here is a technology so new that scientists claim that they really don’t fully know what its applications will be.