If you have seen the movie The Matrix then you are familiar with 'jacking in' - a brain-machine neural interface that connects a human brain to a computer network. For the time being, this is still a sci-fi scenario, but don't think that researchers are not heavily working on it. What is already reality today is something called neuroprosthetics, an area of neuroscience that uses artificial microdevices to replace the function of impaired nervous systems or sensory organs. Different biomedical devices implanted in the central nervous system, so-called neural interfaces, already have been developed to control motor disorders or to translate willful brain processes into specific actions by the control of external devices. These implants could help increase the independence of people with disabilities by allowing them to control various devices with their thoughts (not surprisingly, the other candidate for early adoption of this technology is the military). The potential of nanotechnology application in neuroscience is widely accepted. Especially single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNT) have received great attention because of their unique physical and chemical features, which allow the development of devices with outstanding electrical properties. In a crucial step towards a new generation of future neuroprosthetic devices, a group of European scientists developed a SWCNT/neuron hybrid system and demonstrated that carbon nanotubes can directly stimulate brain circuit activity.
Biomarkers are of increasing importance in modern medicine for the purpose of early detection and diagnosis of a disease, for instance cancer. Biomarkers are mostly protein molecules that can be measured in blood, other body fluids, and tissues to assess the presence or state of a disease. For example, the presence of an antibody may indicate an infection or an antigen, such as PSA, might indicate the presence of prostate-specific cancer cells. Although protein-based approaches to early detection and diagnosis of cancer have a clear advantage over other, more invasive, methods, protein detection is a challenging problem owing to the structural diversity and complexity of the target analytes. State-of-the-art detection methods have limited application due to their high production cost and instability. Another limitation of current proteomic diagnostics is the limitation of arrays to one or a few markers only; in other words, you can only test for the specific markers that you are looking for and not generally measure levels of proteins in your blood in order to detect anomalies. A novel nanotechnology based protein detector array could change that.
In chemotherapy doctors are using a carpet bombing approach to destroy cancer cells: the patient is pumped full of cytotoxic drugs, that go everywhere in the body, with the hope that enough of the drugs reach the cancer cells and target their nuclear DNA to damage it or destroy the cell. Not only do chemotherapeutic techniques have a range of often serious side effects, mainly affecting all the fast-dividing cells of the body, it also has been shown that often less than 1% of the administered drug molecules enter tumor cells and bind to the nuclear DNA. Another complication is drug resistance of cancer cells. This actually is one of the main causes of failure in the treatment of cancer. Dividing cancer cells acquire genetic changes at a high rate, which means that the cells in a tumor that are resistant to a particular drug will survive and multiply. The result is the re-growth of a tumor that is not sensitive to the original drug. Cancer researchers are looking to nanoparticles as a drug carrier capable of localizing and directly releasing drugs into the cell nucleus, thereby circumventing the multidrug-resistance and intracellular drug-resistance mechanisms to effectively deliver drugs to the vicinity of DNA, leading to a high therapeutic efficacy. Scientists now have developed nanoparticles capable of localizing into the nucleus, giving hope to a much more effective cancer chemotherapy that allows to pinpoint individual cells.
The ideal drug carrier may be something out of science fiction. In principle, it is injected into the body and transports itself to the correct target, such as a tumor, and delivers the required dose at this target. This idealized concept was first proposed by Paul Ehrlich at the beginning of the 20th century and was nicknamed the "magic bullet" concept. With the advent of nanotechnology and nanomedicine this dream is rapidly becoming a reality. Nanotechnology has already been applied to drug delivery and cosmetics through the use of liposomal technology, and now nanoparticles and nanotubes present an exciting and more promising alternative.
Cells are the smallest 'brick' in life's building structures. Every living organism is made of cells. Individual cells carry their own DNA and have their own life cycle. Considering that larger organisms, such as humans, are basically huge, organized cell cooperatives, the study of individual live cells is a hugely important scientific task. Among the most significant technical challenges for performing successful live-cell imaging experiments is to maintain the cells in a healthy state and functioning normally on the microscope stage while being illuminated. Especially if scientists want to look into cellular processes that occur in cells in their natural state and that cannot be observed by traditional cytological methods. It is well known that cells move, grow, duplicate, and move from point A to point B. Up to now people studied these mechanical properties with optical microscopes because it is the most common and simple method, very efficient, a very well developed and advanced technology. However, with optical microscopes detection is limited to objects no smaller than the wavelengths of the visible region of light, roughly between 400 and 700 nanometers. Distances or movement smaller than this range cannot be seen with these instruments. Researchers in Kyoto, Japan have applied a near-field optical approach to measure cell mechanics and were able to show intriguing data of nanoscale cell membrane dynamics associated with different phenomena of the cell's life, such as cell cycle and cell death.
Scientists involved in cancer research are showing a lot of interest in carbon nanotubes (CNTs) to be used in basically three cancer-fighting areas. CNTs are being developed as targeted delivery vehicles for anticancer drugs right into cancer cells - think of really, really tiny injection needles. They are also used as the therapeutic agent itself; there is research that shows that CNTs can act as nanoscale bombs that literally blow apart a cancer cell. A third area of application is using CNTs as imaging agents. Particularly single-walled CNTs (SWCNTs) are under active development for various biomedical applications. One of the issues in using CNTs for therapeutic applications is the question of how to get them to the desired place within the organism, say a tumor cell. Another significant problem in applying CNTs for biological applications is that the nanotubes do not stay suspended as discrete nanotubes in aqueous solutions. Coupling the CNT with biomolecules, such as proteins, is a good method for targeting specific sites but has the disadvantage of either reducing protein activity or CNT absorption or both. A novel method demonstrates that it is possible to achieve complete retention of enzymatic activity of adsorbed proteins as well as retention of a substantial fraction of the near-infrared (NIR) absorption of SWCNTs.
In our May 7 spotlight "The potential and the pitfalls of nanomedicine" we took a general look at the potential implications of nanomedicine and addressed some ethical issues that arise as the technology develops. In part two of this article we now take a closer look at emerging nanomedical techniques such as nanosurgery, tissue engineering, nanoparticle-enabled diagnostics, and targeted drug delivery. Again, the ethical issues inherent in these emerging medical technologies need to be considered. There are established principals for ethical assessment of existing, conventional, medical technologies and a new research article examines if and how these principals can be extended to nanomedicine.
In 2005, researchers in the Netherlands developed the concept of a "molecular printboard" (named for its parallels with a computer motherboard) - a monolayer of host molecules on a solid substrate on which guest molecules can be attached with control over position, binding strength, and binding dynamics. Molecules can be positioned on the printboard using supramolecular contact printing and supramolecular dip-pen nanolithography. In this way, nanoscale patterns can be written and erased on the printboard. This technique, which combines top-down fabrication (lithography) with bottom-up methods (self-assembly), has now been applied to proteins. The resulting "protein printboards", allowing the capture and immobilization of proteins with precise control over specificity, strength and orientation, allows the fabrication of protein chips for applications in proteomics. They will play a major role in unraveling the human protein map, just as special chips were instrumental in mapping human DNA.