Nanotechnology is one of the most popular areas of scientific research, especially with regard to medical applications. We've already discussed some of the new detection methods that should bring about cheaper, faster and less invasive cancer diagnoses. But once the diagnosis occurs, there's still the prospect of surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatment to destroy the cancer. Unfortunately, these treatments can carry serious side effects. Chemotherapy can cause a variety of ailments, including hair loss, digestive problems, nausea, lack of energy and mouth ulcers.
But nanotechnologists think they have an answer for treatment as well, and it comes in the form of targeted drug therapies. If scientists can load their cancer-detecting gold nanoparticles with anticancer drugs, they could attack the cancer exactly where it lives. Such a treatment means fewer side effects and less medication used. Nanoparticles also carry the potential for targeted and time-release drugs. A potent dose of drugs could be delivered to a specific area but engineered to release over a planned period to ensure maximum effectiveness and the patient's safety.
These treatments aim to take advantage of the power of nanotechnology and the voracious tendencies of cancer cells, which feast on everything in sight, including drug-laden nanoparticles. One experiment of this type used modified bacteria cells that were 20 percent the size of normal cells. These cells were equipped with antibodies that latched onto cancer cells before releasing the anticancer drugs they contained.
Another used nanoparticles as a companion to other treatments. These particles were sucked up by cancer cells and the cells were then heated with a magnetic field to weaken them. The weakened cancer cells were then much more susceptible to chemotherapy.
It may sound odd, but the dye in your blue jeans or your ballpoint pen has also been paired with gold nanoparticles to fight cancer. This dye, known as phthalocyanine, reacts with light. The nanoparticles take the dye directly to cancer cells while normal cells reject the dye. Once the particles are inside, scientists "activate" them with light to destroy the cancer. Similar therapies have existed to treat skin cancers with light-activated dye, but scientists are now working to use nanoparticles and dye to treat tumors deep in the body.
From manufacturing to medicine to many types of scientific research, nanoparticles are now rather common, but some scientists have voiced concerns about their negative health effects. Nanoparticles' small size allows them to infiltrate almost anywhere. That's great for cancer treatment but potentially harmful to healthy cells and DNA. There are also questions about how to dispose of nanoparticles used in manufacturing or other processes. Special disposal techniques are needed to prevent harmful particles from ending up in the water supply or in the general environment, where they'd be impossible to track.
Gold nanoparticles are a popular choice for medical research, diagnostic testing and cancer treatment, but there are numerous types of nanoparticles in use and in development. Bill Hammack, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Illinois, warned that nanoparticles are "technologically sweet" [Source: Marketplace]. In other words, scientists are so wrapped up in what they can do, they're not asking if they should do it. The Food and Drug Administration has a task force on nanotechnology, but as of yet, the government has exerted little oversight or regulation.
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