Ah…the elixir of life, a mythical potion that was supposed to grant the drinker eternal life and eternal youth, always sought after by humanity, and often equated with the philosopher’s stone. In the light of today’s scientific advancement, will nanoscientists ever realize this myth, thus becoming the XXI century alchemists? As the aim of this article is not to daydream, but to discuss the potential involvement of nanotechnology in the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of diseases, we must start recognizing that some of those figures are not so far away to become true!
Though, this piece of future is becoming progressively real thanks to the tremendous pace of discoveries in the realm of nanomedicine, as taught at Singularity University’s Executive Program FutureMed, a one-of-a-kind program that focuses on disruptive, game-changing exponential technologies that will revolutionize the practice of medicine and radically transform healthcare and the biomedical industry in the decade ahead (see http://exponentialmedicine.com/singularity-university/).
If a statement regarding area of application of this bunch of discoveries, which is just limitless, would be too far naïve, let’s delve deeper into the basis of Nanomedicine, this discipline currently relies on:
- Adetailed biology and pathophysiology knowledge of diseases to enable efficient targeting and therapy,
- Athorough awareness of physical properties to manipulate the matter at the nanoscale and design new diagnostic/therapeutic systems,
- The chemical knowledge to finally provide smart modification of their surfaces and improve their biocompatibility.
Differently from the existing standard of care, the mass application of new diagnostic screening and tools in Nanomedicine will allow for their fast, convenient and inexpensive integration in the clinical practice enabling a concrete, previously unseen, patient-centered medicine. The concept is that proteins produced by cancer cells or their fragments eventually make their way into circulation thus a number of detecting methods (from mass spectrometry to atomic force microscopy) can be used in combination with mathematical algorithm to perform what is called “a proteomic assay”, and therefore diagnose the disease sooner and cheaper than with genetic testing. So not a big surprise if the worldwide market for biomedical nanoscale devices and molecular modeling witnessed a 35%/year growth rate in revenues during the first years of this decade, noteworthy the amazing news is that forecasts for the years to come are even brighter (see http://www.nano.gov).
If the diagnostic insights are thrilling as they promise to boost our knowledge of many diseases, the use of nanoparticles for surgical or therapeutic purposes covers an even larger spectrum of applications. Let’s start with improved targeted and controlled drug delivery. This strategy is aimed at delivering therapeutics to a patient timely and safely to address that individual patient’s need while avoiding healthy organs and tissues. Unfortunately, conventional drug delivery methods are still unable to fully overcome the challenges of long-term treatment, narrow therapeutic windows, complex dosing schedules, combination therapies, individualized dosing regimens, and unstable active formulations; for these reasons nanodrugs are currently in heavy pursuit and many are already in clinical trials (seewww.clinicaltrials.gov).
Nanoparticles are currently advocated also in regenerative medicine, as some synthetic polymers meet most demands for biomimetic tissue engineering scaffolds. In particular they are capable of serving as bulk mechanical and structural platforms as well as enable the molecular interactions within the cells that are necessary to induce tissue healing with immediate possibility for translational application in several pathological conditions (i.e. skin grafts, vascular stents, etc). Finally, the emergence of nanotechnology is offering a new toolset for the discovery, engineering, and manufacturing of nano-patterned surfaces and nanostructured scaffolds for bioengineered implantable devices (i.e. limbs prosthesis, dental implants, etc).
As we did in the previous articles of this series, here we have highlighted some useful web resources, meant to provide the interested readers with further data and call of opportunities:
- The American Society for Nanomedicine, is one of the oldest, largest and brightest professional nanomedicine-focused communities, gathering US and non-US members drawn from throughout the fields of nanotechnology, engineering, and the biomedical sciences with the common goal of promoting and facilitating the formal training of physicians, scientists, engineers, molecular biologists, statisticians and other members and allied healthcare providers in the field of nanotechnology, nanobiology and nanomedicine research (see http://amsocnanomed.org/)
- The European Centre for Nanomedicine (CEN Foundation) is a private foundation in Milan, created in 2009 and operating since 2010, aiming to foster Research & Development activities in the field of nanomedicine, with a focus in its first phase of activity on cancer, cardiovascular and neurological diseases (seehttp://nanomedicen.eu/).
- Based on the success of the EuroNanoMed ERA-NET initiative (2009-2011), the institutional support to the European nanomedecine research community is continuing. The EuroNanoMed II ERA-NET project, comprising 20 partners from 17 countries/regions, has been granted funding through the EC’s 7th Framework Programme. It will run from November 2012 to October 2016 (see http://www.euronanomed.net/)
Finally, to conclude this series of articles focused on nanotechnology, it seems wise to start considering also the potential unintended consequences to human health and the environment surrounding us. Indeed, its development and commercialization pose new question marks from a legal and ethical perspective, which need to be addressed as soon as possible in order to get the most out of this TechBiz, eventually exploiting the related opportunities while preventing us from risky, gloomy scenarios.
Suggested Readings: Commercializing Nanomedicine: Industrial Application, Patent and Ethics. L.Escoffier, M.Ganau, J.Wong (Editors). Pan Stanford Publishing 2014
Author: Mario Ganau MD, MSBM, PhD
Credits: Vincenzo Scuotto (data search), Lara Prisco (cartoonist)