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Mauro Ferrari - Why you should care about molecular nanotechnology

This regular opinion feature asks experts including researchers, business professionals and policy makers the question: “Why should individuals care about nanotechnology?”

Why Care About Nanotechnology?

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Mauro Ferrari, Ph.D.,
Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Internal Medicine at The Ohio State University

“It is very important for the general public to understand that nanotech can really help provide major breakthroughs in medicine.”
— Mauro Ferrari

Why care about nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is changing the way medicine is practiced, and will continue to do so. The clinical practices of the future will increasingly differ from what is standard today. It will not be too many more years before the makeover is complete.

The major changes will be reliance on early detection of disease rather than intervention. The practices will be localized, minimally invasive, and personalized therapies instead of the massively invasive, routinely all-too-damaging approaches that medicine today must take as recourse. This is especially true of cancer and cardiovascular diseases, but the changes will diffuse throughout medicine.

Let’s be clear about the fact that nanotechnology alone cannot do any of the above — but nanotechnology will be a necessary component of the revolution if it is placed at the service of medicine, and fully integrated with the more traditional disciplines of biomedical research and clinical practice.

Why is nanotechnology important for the general public to understand?

Nanotechnology suffers from a unique ill: The same word is used to refer to science fiction stories, and to a set of scientific disciplines that are very real, and so deeply ingrained in the science world that there have already been awarded several Nobel prizes in the last fifteen years.

Referring in particular to medicine, every time I give a talk to medical scientists and clinicians I am delighted to remind them that nanotechnology has been in the clinic for ten years — and that they themselves in all likelihood have used it, by any other name, or have some nanotech-based device in their laboratories. This helps break down the perception barrier, and opens up communications and the possibilities for interactions at the service of the community of healthcare recipients.

It is very important for the general public to understand that nanotech can really help provide major breakthroughs in medicine. As with everything in medicine, extreme care must be exercised to make sure that the medical benefits of nanotherapies will exceed potential collateral damage — but then again, I think it would be very hard, in any circumstances, to develop nanotherapies that reach the undesired toxicity level of the chemotherapies we use in the cancer clinic every day on millions of Americans!

As demonstrated by recent polls, the general public is rightfully mindful of the potential environmental impact of nanotech — and we all should be. I am not an expert on the environmental impact of industrial products in general, but for what pertains to medical grade nanomedicines I am comforted by the fact that there are very stringent safety and efficacy tests that medicines (nano or not) must go through to be approved for market use, and that nanomedicines like all chemotherapeuticals and most medicines must follow very stringent rules on their handling and disposition. Plus, the very volumes and dosages are so small, that I am very optimistic that the medical nanorevolution will take place without undesired environmental effects.

Again, as shown by the Pew Charitable Foundation/Woodrow Wilson report, I am comforted that the general public views favorably the applications of nanotech to medicine, and is less concerned about undesired effects the more they know about it. I think these are the objectives we must collectively strive for: Full understanding by the general public of the benefits and potentials, and the ability for all together — scientists and non-scientists — to make the right decisions about priorities of investment and intervention.

What are your research goals?

I am active in four general areas, each of which has multiple subdisciplinary components, but are mostly based on a combination of silicon nanotechnology, mathematical modeling, and molecular biology:

1. Targeted therapeutics. The idea is to make sure that the very toxic drugs that are used, for instance against cancer, reach the desired cancer target in large concentrations, once they are injected in the bloodstream, and then discharge their action without damaging healthy tissues. By contrast, what is current practice in oncology today, without any nano, is to inject somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 parts of very toxic drugs to have only one part reach the cancer. The problem of targeting is very, very difficult and requires multiple functions onboard of the therapeutic agent — this is just perfect for nanotech — actually, I do not think there is any other way.

2. Releasing drugs from wearable implants at desired timerelease profiles. It is not only a matter of getting the drug to the right place — we must also be able to mimic what the body does when it is healthy: release agents at the time when they are needed. Think diabetes: The solution is not to flood the body with insulin at all times (which would be rapidly deadly), but to have insulin available when needed, or most efficacious. Why should cancer therapy or intervention against say infectious diseases be any different? They aren’t: tailoring the right release profile to the need is always an improvement. The problem has been so far that the only way to do time-release has been to connect to an IV line in a hospital room — clearly a suboptimal strategy.

3. Early diagnostics. The best way to fight cancer, for instance, is to catch in its precursor or early stages, when it is easier to treat. It often takes 10-15 years for a mass of deranged cells to grow to the point when it is clinically detectable, and then it is often too late. It seems to me that with improved technology platforms it should be possible to monitor everyone and catch these clusters of deranged cells — we have a tremendously long time window to pick them up! In particular, I am convinced that early detection and mass screening of the general population will arise from blood tests — in particular examining the serum proteome. In view of the immense complexity and diversity of the protein population within blood, again I see no way to do it unless we employ nanotechnology platforms. Our approach is to use nanotextured surfaces in combination with mass spectrometry to identify protein profiles that are telling of something untoward going on.

4. We also have a program to help secure quantitative information from breast cancer tissue biopsies, and use the information to guide in the selection of the therapeutic regime to follow, in particular for what pertains to the wonderful new drug Herceptin. This is an example of personalized, molecular medicine meeting nanotech.

How is your research relevant to the general public?

We try not to do anything unless there is a clear path from the lab to benefits for the community at large. Obviously this does not guarantee that we always succeed — don’t I wish that were the case!!! ’ it is just an indication of the driver for all of our work.

In the context of your research, how do you see it impacting the future?

We hope to reach the clinic with all four lines of work. More importantly, though, we hope SOMEBODY reaches the clinic successfully addressing the problems we are working on. We lose one person a minute to cancer in the USA, 20 a minute worldwide. I frankly don’t much care who gets there first — we will all contribute a little bit, perhaps some more than others, but not by that much. Many readers of this article will witness a world where cancer is no longer a sentence to suffering and death for anyone. The key preoccupation must only be getting there as quick as possible, right?

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