Most longed-for nanotechnology: nanomedicine

As a veteran nanowatcher, I can testify that what most people want most from nanotechnology is dramatic medical advances, such as the cancer treatments now showing so much promise. Science magazine periodically includes a “product” section reviewing what’s happening in a particular field of interest. Nanobiotechnology: an Incredible Voyage for the Life Sciences by Mike May and Gary Heebner surveys a wide variety of developments, but starts out with an overview by yours truly:

Defining nanobiotechnology seems easy enough: technological applications on the billionth of a meter scale related to biology. Most scientists in this field would probably agree with that definition, but there are twists, too. Christine Peterson, vice president and co-founder of the Foresight Nanotech Institute, calls it “the interactions of biological materials or systems with nanotechnological materials and devices.” Nonetheless, she adds that the description of this field continues to evolve.

Instead of focusing on what is or is not part of nanobiotechnology, scientists wonder more what is going on in this broad area. First, this field brings researchers together from many areas: cellular and molecular biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, and more. In addition, nanobiotechnology aims at improving automated laboratory procedures, imaging, diagnostic assays, and more. In the near term, says Peterson, “The most exciting developments will probably be in cancer treatments. Some wonderful results are already coming from that area.” She also expects nanobiotechnology to trigger advances in the early detection of a variety of diseases and improvements in biological implants.

Peterson adds that these are early days for nanobiotechnology, but she says that “the funds are already flowing.” As a result, she expects even more benefits in the next decade. For example, she mentions faster DNA sequencing. “You hear predictions of rapid DNA readings in doctors’ offices,” she says. On an even more distant horizon, she believes that microscopic robotic devices will emerge from nanobiotechnology. “Scientists want to combine the chemical action of drugs with the three-dimensional control of surgery,” Peterson says. “The ultimate goal will be to work at the molecular level with nanoscale devices.”

I am often asked whether this kind of advanced nanomedicine will be expensive. Yes, in the beginning, like practically all technologies. Then costs should come down over time. —Christine

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