Without doubt, nanotechnology is having a major impact on medicine and the treatment of disease, notably in imaging and targeted drug delivery. Nanotechnology promises us a radically different medicine than the cut, poke and carpet bomb (think chemo therapy) medicine of today. The two major differences of nanomedicine will be a) the tools it uses - the main workhorse will be multifunctional nanoparticles and b) it will enable a perfectly targeted and individual treatment: organs and bones, really any body tissue, can be diagnosed and treated on a cell by cell basis with precise dosing and monitoring through the use of biomolecular sensors. Notwithstanding the huge amount of research going into this field, nanomedicine by and large is still in the basic research stage. Some fundamental problems like the targeting of nanoparticles in vivo, the transport of unstable drugs, and the dosage control of drug-carrying nanoparticles lead some scientists to think even one step further. Rather than delivering external drugs into the body, they conceptualize "pseudo-cell" nanofactories that work with raw ingredients already in the body to manufacture the proper amount of drug in-situ under the control of a molecular biosensor.
Nanoparticles are of great scientific interest as they are effectively a bridge between bulk materials and atomic or molecular structures. Nanoparticles that consist of crystals of tens to thousands of atoms have been synthesized and used as "artificial atoms". In order to develop nanoparticle-based devices, though, it is essential to be able to control the placement of nanoparticles relative to one another. Two- and three-dimensional crystals of nanoparticles can be generated in a relatively straightforward manner, but it has been impossible to direct the assembly of the particles with any degree of specificity. The problem is that nanoparticle assembly so far has been constrained by the isotropic interactions between the particles. Isotropic materials have identical values of a property in all crystallographic directions, i.e. they are almost spherical in appearance. Though it is increasingly evident that nanoparticles would become a much more powerful research and engineering tool if it were possible to to enable directional assembly, breaking the interaction symmetry in isotropic materials is a major challenge. Doing so would enlarge the scope of potential applications, because anisotropic assemblies, where the interatomic bond strengths is directionally dependent, have distinctive properties that cannot be found or produced in isotropic assemblies. Researchers at MIT now have reported a simple method to fabricate divalent metal nanoparticles. This work is a first step towards enabling the controllable, directional assembly of nanoparticles into more complex and well-specified structures.
In much the same way that each of our bodies depends on bones for mechanical integrity and strength, each cell within our bodies is governed mechanically by a skeleton of composite materials including protein polymers (such as actin filaments) and motor proteins (myosin), called the cytoskeleton. Actin and myosin are key components in muscle contraction and cell motility. The cytoskeleton is an active material that maintains cell shape, enables some cell motion, and plays important roles in both intra-cellular transport and cellular division. The cytoskeletal system is not at thermodynamic equilibrium and this non-equilibrium drives motor proteins that are the force generators in cells. Analogous to how our bones are held and moved by muscles, the cytoskeleton is activated by these molecular motors, which are nanometer-sized force-generating enzymes. In an ongoing effort to design and create a simplified, bottom-up model of the cytoskeleton, researchers now have designed and assembled a biomolecular model system capable of mechanical activity similar to that of living cells. This work could serve as a starting point for exploring both model systems and cells in quantitative detail, with the aim of uncovering the physical principles underlying the active regulation of the complex mechanical functions of cells. It could also provide new fundamental insights and offer new design principles for materials science.
The combination of sp3, sp2, and sp hybridized atoms can give rise to a large number of carbon allotropic forms and phases, starting from carbon crystals based on all sp3 (diamond) and sp2 (graphite, fullerene) are well known and characterized. In addition there are innumerable transitional forms of carbon where sp2 and sp3 hybridization bonds coexist in the same solid such as in amorphous carbon, carbon black, soot, cokes, glassy carbon, etc. Solids based on sp hybridization, although subject of intense experimental efforts, seem to be the most elusive of the different carbon families. Such one-dimensional (1D) structures - "real" carbon nanowires - are linear chains of carbon atoms linked by alternating single and triple bonds (polyynes) or only double bonds (polycumulene). They are considered the building blocks for the elusive "carbyne": an ideal crystal constituted by carbon atoms with sp hybridization only. In solid and stable form this would represent a new carbon allotrope whose existence was a matter of great debate in the 1980s. With the immense interest in carbon nanomaterials, sp carbon nanostructures have become objects of renewed interest in recent years since they are considered precursors in the formation of fullerenes and carbon nanotubes; moreover they are interesting in astrophysics since they are considered constituents of interstellar dust. 1D carbon nanowires are expected to show interesting optical, electrical and mechanical properties. Some techniques already permit the synthesis of linear carbon chains in solution. However, their extremely high reactivity against oxygen - they can literally explode - and a strong tendency to interchain crosslinking makes synthesis of pure carbyne solids a major challenge. Researchers in Italy have now presented a simple method to obtain a solid system where polyynes in a silver nanoparticle assembly display long-term stability at ambient conditions.
The study of adverse health effects of nanosized particles is nothing new. Particle toxicology is a mature science, dealing with the exposure to airborne nanosized (or ultrafine) particles that either occur naturally or have increasingly been introduced through human activities or industrial products such as materials that include asbestos fibers and coal dust. Research on ultrafine particles has laid the foundation for the emerging field of nanotoxicology, with the goal of studying the biokinetics of engineered nanomaterials and their potential for causing adverse effects. Most, if not all, toxicological studies on nanoparticles rely on current methods, practices and terminology as gained and applied in the analysis of micro- and ultrafine particles and mineral fibers. Together with recent studies on nanoparticles, this provides an initial basis for evaluating the primary issues in a risk assessment framework for nanomaterials. Given the many parameters involved, nanotoxicology requires an interdisciplinary team approach, even more so than classical toxicology, in order to arrive at an appropriate risk assessment. As a still-maturing science, nanotoxicology will expand the boundaries of traditional toxicology from a testing and auxiliary science to a new discipline where toxicological knowledge of nanomaterials can be put to constructive use in therapeutics as well as the development of new and better biocompatible materials.
Nanotechnology-enabled tissue engineering is receiving increasing attention. The ultimate goal of tissue engineering as a medical treatment concept is to replace or restore the anatomic structure and function of damaged, injured, or missing tissue. At the core of tissue engineering is the construction of three-dimensional scaffolds out of biomaterials to provide mechanical support and guide cell growth into new tissues or organs. Biomaterials can be variously permanent or biodegradable, naturally occurring or synthetic, but inevitably need to be biocompatible. Using nanotechnology, biomaterial scaffolds can be manipulated at atomic, molecular, and macromolecular levels. Creating tissue engineering scaffolds in nanoscale also may bring unpredictable new properties to the material, such as mechanical (stronger), physical (lighter and more porous) or chemical reactivity (more active or less corrosive), which are unavailable at micro- or macroscales. For bone tissue engineering, a special subset of osteoinductive, osteoconductive, integrative and mechanically compatible materials are required. Such materials need to provide cell anchorage sites, mechanical stability, structural guidance and an in vivo milieu. Moreover, they need to provide an interface able to respond to local physiological and biological changes and to remodel the extracellular matrix (ECM) in order to integrate with the surrounding native tissue. Scientists in Singapore have developed a new nanoscale biocomposite that brings researchers one step closer to mimicking the architecture of the ECM.
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) belong to the most exciting nanomaterials discovered so far and the buzz associated with them has to do with their amazing properties. Depending on their structure, they can be metals or semiconductors. They exhibit extraordinary mechanical properties, which make them extremely strong materials with good thermal conductivity. Their tensile strength is several times that of steel. These characteristics have generated strong interest in their possible use in reinforced composites, nanoelectronics, nanomechanical devices, circuits and computers. Single-wall nanotubes (SWNTs) are an intriguing variant of carbon nanotubes because they exhibit important electrical properties that are not shared by the multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWNT). SWNTs are the most likely candidate for miniaturizing electronics toward the nanoscale. Because of their enormous commercial potential, universities, start-ups, and corporations have aggressively sought patent protection on nanotube-based products. A recent legal paper identifies key patents claiming compositions of matter, methods of production, and products incorporating nanotubes. The authors summarize potential patent invalidity arguments that may be raised against certain patents in the field and explain how the patent landscape impacts the commercialization of nanotube-based products. A proposed "Nanotube Patent Forum" could be a means for industry to facilitate cost-effective licensing transactions between patent holders and manufacturers.
The potential benefits of Nanofoods - foods produced using nanotechnology - are astonishing. Advocates of the technology promise improved food processing, packaging and safety; enhanced flavor and nutrition; 'functional foods' where everyday foods carry medicines and supplements, and increased production and cost-effectiveness. In a world where thousands of people starve each day, increased production alone is enough to warrant worldwide support. For the past few years, the food industry has been investing millions of dollars in nanotechnology research and development. Some of the world's largest food manufacturers, including Nestle, Altria, H.J. Heinz and Unilever, are blazing the trail, while hundreds of smaller companies follow their lead. Yet, despite the potential benefits, compared with other nanotechnology arenas, nanofoods don't get a lot of publicity. The ongoing debate over nanofood safety and regulations has slowed the introduction of nanofood products, but research and development continue to thrive - though, interestingly, most of the larger companies are keeping their activities quiet (when you search for the term 'nano' or nanotechnology' on the websites of Kraft, Nestle, Heinz and Altria you get exactly zero results). Although the risks associated with nanotechnology in other areas, such as cosmetics and medicine, are equally blurry, it seems the difference is that the public is far less apt to jump on the nanotechnology bandwagon when it comes to their food supply.