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The angels of medicine are in the town

By | Oct 6th 2009 | 4 min read
By | October 6th 2009

By Michael Ogembo Kachieng’a

For centuries, scientists have been studying and working with nanoparticles, but the effectiveness of their work has been hampered by their inability to see the structure of nanoparticles.

In recent years, the development of microscopes capable of displaying particles as small as atoms has allowed scientists to see what they are working with.

The ability to see nano-sized materials has opened up a world of possibilities in a variety of applications in medicine and other scientific endeavours.

The nanotechnology debate has been on-going for decades. The differences start with a definition of nanotechnology.

In simple terms, it is defined as ‘the study and use of structures between one nanometre and one-hundred nanometre in size’.

To give an idea of how small that is, it would take eight one hundred nanometre particles side by side to match the width of a single human hair. What most scientists tend to agree on is that the potential of nanotechnology in all sectors of society cannot be underestimated.

Application of nanotechnology is opening new frontiers in medicine: cellular drug delivery, the genomics revolution, spinal cord repair and organ growth.

Manipulative components

These medical breakthroughs are being brought to us by biomedical engineers working in the intellectually challenging field of nanotechnology.

Many cells in which numerous life activities and the interaction of protein surfaces take place, are measured in nanometers.

Biomedical scientists are working on extremely small machines and tools that can enter the human body. This is the millionth-of-a-millimetre world of biotechnology today — the nanotechnology world.

New developments are taking place in medicine because the new tools and instruments enable scientists to look at and manipulate components at nano-scale.

In the field of biomedicine, biology is becoming a substratum of engineering. The new generation of biomedical engineers is being trained in biology as well as in engineering principles.

This new approach empowers engineers to apply quantitative principles in biological systems. Nanotechnology is a confluence of many factors. A major shift is happening in engineering education focusing on developmental and application principles.

What works is what matters in modern engineering. There is more knowledge concerning biology. Biology is going through a revolution and because engineers are more tuned to these new technological innovations developments gained from experiences in the computer and consumer electronics industries.

Medical innovations

The convergence of biology and engineering is creating new techniques in finding solutions to clinical disease management and healthcare services.

By using a person’s saliva, body fluids or blood, nano-biosensors can be created to reliably detect pathogens such as viruses.

Nanotechnology will provide the ability to monitor and measure a virus like AIDS, which in size averages 100 nanometers.

In tissue engineering, a scaffold measuring about 50 nanometers in diameter can be built using nanofibres.

By controlling the surface properties of these fibres, artificial tissue can be grown on them for various applications such as burn treatment or growing new organs.

Nanotechnology has opened new techniques for making artificial tissues and learning more about the process of cellular aggregation.

Secrets of life

The new knowledge will help scientists understand how the cells interact to form functional tissues for a liver or a pancreas. These are the secrets of life and they are taking place at nanoscale.

In drugs delivery, bio-engineers are looking into molecules which are encapsulated within a cell such as ‘leptosome vesicle’.

These cells have properties that would allow drugs to be released in a controlled manner-dosage by dosage. Bio-engineers are researching ways to functionalise these cells for site-specific targeting and sensing applications.

These novel techno-medical innovations and drug delivery systems would provide scientists with new opportunities to fight diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Looking at the health care business value chain, drug development costs can be reduced by using nanochips to test various medications or combinations of chemicals.

The tests would use nanoprobes so thin and sharp it is thought they would enter cells and leave a few molecules of a particular drug behind and then exit, leaving the cells intact and live. Most tools and techniques based on nanotechnology are inspired by nature and what nature does at cellular level.

Scientists are learning to be good observers at nanoscale. Many scientists are studying closely how intercellular and intracellular processes work.

These processes are governed by the basic principles of cellular biomechanics. If scientists become smart enough to mimic, copy or utilise cellular biomechanics, they will be able to engineer biomedical tools based on biological principles.

Since nanotechnology is a cutting-edge-technology shrouded in ethical issues, many research teams are constituted of groups looking into technological initiatives from a humanitarian, a social and an economic point of view.

A new nanotechnology application known as ‘nano-cells’, has demonstrated the potential to provide instantaneous blood-tests.

Enabling the blood test to be done on a time scale of minutes instead of days opens more possibilities in situations such as trauma, toxins, strokes and infectious diseases, leading to immediate diagnosis and intervention.

The writer ([email protected]) is a Biomedical Engineering Scientist, Consulting Technological Entrepreneur and Professor of Technological Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School of Technology Management, University of Pretoria, South Africa.

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