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Nano in medicine

What's going on in nanomedicine?

It's tricky to know if and when some of the more ambitious applications of nano in medicine may come to fruition, but many seen below are likely in the near future.

Joints and implants

One area in which nanotechnologies may already be available here in the UK is the use of nano coatings on joint replacements and implants which have greater strength, durability and are less likely to be rejected by the body.

Target and zap - better drug delivery

In drug delivery, the challenge for the traditional pharmaceutical companies is to deliver the right drug to the right target with no, or minimal, side effects, and at reduced cost. It looks like nano may be a big help in this area.

Nanoparticles could be created to be attracted to a particular part of the body and then activated to cure the problem on the spot. For example, in cancer therapy, the goal is to target only cancerous cells, leaving healthy cells intact.

With nano it may be possible to specifically target the cancerous cells and then activate the nano-structures to kill just those cells. The targeting bit is much nearer to coming to fruition than the bit which allows the drugs to be released at the right moment.

The potential also exists for monitoring of the body and then drug delivery without the intervention of people. For example a device implanted in the body monitors the blood sugar level in someone who is diabetic and delivers a shot of insulin when required.

Nano can also help the absorption of drugs. The particles of the active ingredient can be made smaller and so can be more easily and quickly absorbed by the body.

What's a 'lab-on a-chip'?

One of the most talked about developments is called a ‘lab on a chip’. This basically means that scientists can run tests that they used to do in a lab on a microchip. This means you can run tests that used to be sent to a lab, in a doctor’s surgery or in your home.

This can be used for testing blood samples for signs of disease, for example, or quick and easy genetic decoding. Hand-held lab-on-a-chip devices are already being used in hospitals to detect whether someone is having a heart attack, and another similar development is being used to distinguish several different narcotics in the bloodstream.

Genetic decoding devices, which you can use in your own home to predict your likelihood of getting a certain illness like cancer or heart disease, are already available on the internet and will become cheaper as nano improves the technology.

But how much do we want to know about what you might, or might not die of, in advance?

Have a look at our Social and Ethical section for more.

Better pictures - improved medical imaging

Medical imaging allows doctors to take better pictures of your insides so that they can understand better what you’ve got and how to treat it. You will know about MRI scans and xrays which provide images in this way.

Nano can help a lot with that by getting down to the size of the cells you want to monitor and finding ways of making things show up better in scans; or by spotting certain sorts of cells and providing markers to help them be seen more easily.

Better body parts - tissue engineering

Tissue engineering involves using nanomaterials to help build biological structures that can be used to reproduce or repair damaged tissue. For example, nanomaterials can be created for use as the scaffold for building up larger skin tissue structures to replace skin that has been burned. It could even, in the long run, lead to the replacement of organs and limbs.

There are social and ethical considerations accompanying many of these medical breakthoughs. Though we don’t have much detail at the moment, take a look at our Social and Ethical section if you want to know more.

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