Recently, how we make use of materials was limited by what we could see with our eyes, and what we could touch with our hands. Then we discovered atoms and everything changed. Over the period of a few decades over a period in the 20th century, scientists and engineers went from being limited by what they could see and touch, to being able to play with the basic building blocks of all materials. It was a pivotal point in human development, and one that we are only just beginning to realize the full significance of. This kickstarted the age of nanotechnology as well as materials like Graphene and Carbon Nanotubes.

 

NANOCACOONS

Good things come in small packages, really small. One major disease that scientists and researchers have been trying to eradicate is cancer, a collection of diseases all about unusual and uncontrolled cell growth. Now, we’ve got lots of different reatments but many of them come with severe side effects or other major risk factors. WOuldn’t it be cool if we could fight cancer on a cellular level. Well in teh not too distant future, that might become a reality and it involves nanotechnology. Before you get ahead of yourself, I’m not talking about a nanosized robot attacking cancer cells, we’re talking about a drug delivery system that relies on DNA. We can actually code DNA ourselves to make up different shapes, and that’s what a team at North Carolina State university have done. They’ve used DNA to create DNA cacoons that are just 150 nanometers wide that contain anti-cancer medication. They use this to kill cancer cells ina very specific way. The DNA shells have ligands on them. Ligands are molecules that will bind with other specific types of molecules, you can think of it like a key and a lock. The DNA holds the key and the cancer cells are the lock. So when the DNA cacoon binds with the cancer cell, the cancer cell envelops the DNA caccoon which then releases it’s payload. It’s targeted cellular chemotherapy and it could change the world. This is not the first time scientists have looked at a way of using molecular markers and tiny delivery systems to treat canceer. Scientists have experimented with all sorts of things, like metallic nanoparticles or even the hollowed out shell of a virus to deliver drugs. But this team says that their approach is different because it’s easier to manufacture and thjerefore it could be scalebale. So maybe we’ll be seeing this as a common cancer treatment in the near future. The team is now going into preclinical trials right now. So what’s the big deal about targeting individual cells in the first place?Because chemotherapy is essentially using a poison to kill fast dividing cells like cancer cells, but it could also affect healthy tissues so there’s some very sever side effects. If you’re able to use this appriach, you can use less medication that’s more efficient and therefore reduce the side effects on healthy cells. Not only are you treating cancer patients in a more effective way, but you’re improving cancer patient’s quality of life in the process. I’m really eager to see how they progress with this project. In 1998 researchers hypothetically designed a red blood cell that was 200 times more efficient than our regular red blood cells. It was, in essence, an atomic sized oxygen tank that could fill up in the lungs and then distribute oxygen to the tissues way better than our own cells can. Papers in the journal ACS nano and physics today among many others on the past couple of years used what researchers are calling “DNA oragami” or nanocacoons to carry medication directly to cancer cells. DNA oragami is essentially a nanoengineered barrel made of DNA that can carry drugs or information to a specific place and then release it.

NANODIAMONDS

For centuries we’ve known how to combine elements to make substances like bronze, steel, and plastic. But we’re now entering an age where scientists are able to work on the atomic level, to manipulate atoms and molecules, to create new tools that promise to revolutionize the world we live in. Nanometer is one billionth the size of a meter. Our fingernail grows one nanometer every second. It’s working at this tiny scale that’s opened the door to a whole new world. Nanotech is expected to deliver all sorts of imorvements to our daily lives from ultra strong ultra light building materials to cloths that monitor our bodily functions to batteries that charge our phones in seconds. But nowhere is nanotech expected to have a bigger impact than in medicine. A medical researcher Dr. Dean Ho has been looking into nanodiamonds to take the place of sirynges and pills to treat disease. His team develops nanodiamonds, particles that are about 4 to 5 nanometers per diamond, for applications in therapeutics and drug deliver. Dr Ho and his researchers are looking at the diamonds as a way to treat cancer. The process works by assembling a group of diamonds and then coating them with the cancer killing drug. The diamonds are then studied with protein receptors. Once in teh bloodstream the nanodiamonds skip over the healthy tissues until they find the cancer cell. The y shaped proteins on the nanodiamonds fit more effectively with the triangular shaped proteins on the tumor cells, more than manuy of the biotech treatments we already have. The nanodiamondsa are then taken into the cancer cells and into the tumoir itself where the drug can then be released and the tumor is then killed. Using these nanodiamonds to target cancer cells could result in vastly improved treatments while cutting down on the harmful side effects of traditional chemotherapy. One issue is that patients continually have to be injected with chemotherapy, and these chemotherapies are very harmful to healthy tissue of the body. Chemo doesnt distinguish between cancer cells and healthy cells, it attacks both and results in debilitating side effects for patients. If we can load these drugs on nanomaterials we can circulating them in the body for a longer period of time and in so doing we don’t have to inject these patients over and over again. IOne injection of nanodiamonds will do it. We get higher efficiency of treatment wper injection with these nanomaterials and drugs. What this means for the patient is reduced side effects based on the power of nanotechnology. Right now’s a very exciting time to be at the forefront of nanotech is because several disciplines are coming together to create novel technologies and functions based on nanotch. Some examples include clinicians working together with engioneers to create tech that will transform how medicine is practiced. It sounds straight out of science fiction, nanotech has been around longer than we have. Nature has been working at the nanoscale since the dawn of life, and it’s nature that’s given researchers all sorts of ideas.

NANOSILVER

An atom is a fraction of a nanometer. Chad Mirkin, chemist in Northwestern University is a pioneer of the nanoworld, building things on the nano scale. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, so small that it’s less than half the width of DNA. There are already a number of medical application, Chad Mirkin has developped a tecnology that harnesses the unique proeprties of gold and silver nanoparticles to test for egnetic variations in patients. Sequenceing D N A is expensive and time consuming. But Chad’s revolutoonary test takes less than 2 hours. This test can actually read the letters of D N A and using gold nanoparticles it flags variations that might make you sensitive to particular mutations that signal heightened risk for disease and possible sensitivity to different drugs. In 2 hours the results are in. It’s a diagnostic tool for physicians to detect genetic disease and proper medication dosages.

NANOMAGNETS

Blood scrubbing nanomagnets and artificial biospleens. The Wyss institute at harvard has just published some of it’s first data from this line of research and it relied on a lot of amazing work to get it done. Step 1 figure out the gene that codes for Mannose-binding lectin, a protein that’s a large part of our immune response to tons of different pathogens, including bacteria, fungi, viruses,a nd parasites. Also, lots of various byproducts of infection that causee very deadly inflammatory responses. Then, genetically engineer that gene so that its binding to pathogens is reversable, it doesn’t cause blood clotting and it’s more stable than the original form. Next, splice that engineered gene into the genome of a bacterium designed to constantly pump it outl which makes the protein a lot cheaper to produce. Now you bind that protein to microscopic magnetic nanobeads, run some blood throught the beads using a fancy microfluidic chamber designed based on your spleen, wait for the mannose binding lectin to bind to the mannose, a typoe of sugar found in the membranes of those pathogens, then use magnets to pull the little beads out of the blood, and finally, pump the cleansed blood back into the patient. Obviously this is awesome. Not only does this biospleen filter out pathogens without needing to figure out what the pathogens are, a process that can take days of medical tests. Not only can it be used in conjuction with rather than a replacement for other therapies. Not only does it extract the living pathogens from the blood for simple analysis later, but it also actually works. The scientists at the Wyss institute gave some rats a nasty e coli infections. Only 17% of the untreated rats suvived, while 90% of the treated rats lived. And that’s without any additional therapies. The treatment session lasted 5 hours. Just 5 hours to clean all the rat’s blood. We’re entering a terifying new era of antimicrobial resistence, but an even better era of nanotechnology terapies. Just for the time being anyway, far more expensive ones.

NANOTRANSFECTION

Researchers have developed an incredible new technology that allows them to reprogram skin cells into any cell an ailing bodyu needs with a single touch. The tech is called tissue nanotransfection, it involves using nanotube technology that could generate any kind of cell within the patient’s own body. The new cell could repair injured tissue, or restore function of aging tissu, organs, blood vessels or even nerve cells. Here’s how it works. A nanotechnology based chip about the size of a postage stamp is placed on the skin and stimulated by an electric current. In less than a second, the chip creates nanometer scale entry pathways into tissue cells, or basically provides a way to access skin cells, like an opening. These openings can be used to deliver a cocktail of reprogramming factors, this cocktail is acombination of genes that reprogram the cell’s DNA. Reprogramming the cell basically turns a skuin cell into an induced pluripotent stem cell. As you know, stem cells can then be reprogrammed into any cell the body needs. It does all this without hurting the patient, or having to take the cells out of the body. Which is how we currently do stem cell therapy. The tech allows any cell to turn into a stem cell provided that it’s a dividing cell. Skin cells naturally replenish so they are a perfect fertile land where elements of any new organ can be grown,. int he study the team was able to reprogram skin cells to become vascular cells in mouse’s leg that was in need of better blood flow. In 2 weeks the leg was saved. skin cells repgrogrammed into nerve cells were also able to repair the brains of mice recovering from strokes. the tech is still in the preclinical research phase, so far it’s only been tested on mice but the team hopes to begin clinical trials soon, the implications of cell reprogramming are huge. Something as simple and easy as this methode could change stem cell therapy forever. Doctors could just recruit your own cells to fix a problem. It’s not like you’re short on cells, why not put them to good use.

NANOKNIFE

Another use for nanomagnets is in a company called nanoknife, which have a cancer treatment that inject photothermal metallic nanostructures into the patient, tag them to cancer cells which will ingest them, then put the patient under a giant magnet to spin the nanoparticles. This heats up the nanoparticles inside cancer cells and destroys them.

BUCKEYBALLS

Carbon soccar balls. Remarkably recently in 1985 a team of scientists headed by Harold Kroto, James R. Heath and Richard Smalley discovered a new form of carbon, a molecule in the shape of a soccarball and they called it fullerene after Richard Buckminster fuller, the architect who popularized the geodesic dome. It’s called either C60 or the buckeyball for short. Everyone was suprised when theis was discoevered, finding out carbon had an allotrope nobody knew about. These guys got a nobel prize in chemistry for figuring out how to make carbon into a ball. Kroto thought that maybe if he shot a really powerful laser at some graphite layers of carbon arranged into flat spheres, he could completely break its carbon-carbon bonds. Lo and behold and they found that a percentage of the carbon atoms bind in to this extremely stable carbon molecule made of 60 carbon atoms. It didn’t react easily with other molecules which is unusual because carbon is very reactive and has 4 spare electrons it really wants to use to make bonds with other atoms. The atoms each bonded to 3 neighboring carbon atoms while leaving one atom free. This gives it extraordinary properties, but unfortunately it’s very expensive to make. That free electron for each of the carbon atoms gives C60 a lot of flexibility and high electrical conductivity because, like graphene , the spare electrons can skate on the surface of the soccar ball cage structure. This molecule has very promising applications in Nanomedicine. When a molecule of buckeyballs attached to 12 molecules of nitrous oxide it can explode in a controlled reactions. They can be used to deliver a drug or medication inside individual cells and then explode. It would get the drugs where they need to go, especially when being used to destroy cancer and tumor cells. In the distant future, it could also have implications for programmable matter.

DNA NANAOPORES

Biology is nothing more than a computational system. Granted, it’s far more sophisticated than any other computer available to us today, but we’re slowly beginning to learn how to read and write DNA as we would with code. Thanks to a group of researcher fellows of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), we’ve now taken one extra step towards a future of synthetic biology.Published on IEEE Access, researchers used nanopores – a tiny hole inside of a membrane that allows singular molecules of DNA to pass through – in order to read DNA and proteins, and subsequently write new DNA by inserting mini-genes into mammalian cells.

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“In conclusion, the future is brilliant, if you think small and do a bit more research. Nanopores can be used to both READ: detect and sequence DNA and sense proteins, and WRITE DNA into cells. These tools will provide methods to explore areas of biology either impractical to reach, or at least logistically intractable.” – IEEE Study

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Not only is this breakthrough research helping us better understand our own biology, but is equally bringing everyone else along for the ride. By simplifying the methodological ability to sequence single-cell DNA using nanopores, these researchers have provided molecular and sub-molecular analysis within reach for all bench-top scientists and clinical labs outside of the confines of genomics or spectrometry specialists.But don’t jump off your seats just yet in celebration, because more research is needed for synthetic biology to make a significant impact.

“Prospects for synthetic biology (and manufacturing) using nanopores to program cells (or micelles) and deliver materials are especially alluring. Chemical processing generally becomes more efficient in a microreactor because mass transport limitations are practically eliminated. However, the synthesis, so far, has been focused at a single cell or few nano-reactor level; it needs to be scaled up.” – IEEE Study

FUTURE IMPLICATIONS

The precision of molecular configuration of ions passing through the pores of membranes points to a future of tiny research making extremely large impacts on the health of society. The future of medicine will largely rely on our ability to read and write DNA like code in order to upgrade our bio-computational systems against fatal diseases. By using nanopores as a means of reading and writing DNA, we are steadily revealing the secrets of our own biology, consequently unlocking future possibilities of enhancing our longevity.

Photo Credit: IEEE / Genetic Literacy Project

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