Nanotechnology is expected to have a significant impact on improving the quality of health care through early and reliable diagnostics of diseases, better drugs, targeted drug delivery, improved implants, and other applications.
Biosensors – using a combination of nanomaterials, novel device fabrication techniques and advances in signal processing – are being developed for early detection of several life threatening illnesses. These sensors use carbon nanotubes or silicon nanowires which can host the probe molecule that seeks to identify the signature of a particular condition or illness. Nanobiosensors using this approach are expected to be mass-produced using techniques developed by the computer chip industry.
Nanotechnology will also play an important role in therapeutics. Two areas where nanotechnology is expected to make an impact are synthesis of improved drugs using principles of nanotechnology, and targeted drug delivery. Specifically, a certain family of molecules known as dendrimers (these are repeatedly branched molecules) are considered as candidates for effective delivery of drugs. These large polymers have a pouch-like configuration at their centers which can be used to host drugs inside the molecules that carry them to their destination.
At present, diagnostics and therapeutics are largely based on statistical data gathered from the general population. How about individualized medicine, based on one’s own genetic makeup? Unambiguous diagnostics and reduced side effects from drugs could be two major benefits. This direction would require a simple, reliable and rapid technique to identify, store and deliver one’s genetic makeup for medical purposes.*
Individuals who need artificial parts in their body – legs, limbs, ligaments or organs – can expect more reliable and rejection-proof substitutes using nanomaterials, better composites using nanotubes, nanoparticles, and other nanomaterials with desirable mechanical properties. Some of the desirable properties include better response to electrical and other forces. These would contribute to the development of reliable, durable artificial components.
*A nanopore based gene sequencing technology is one candidate to answer this challenge. In the nanopore approach, a diaphragm containing a pore of 1-2 nm in diameter is housed in an electrolytic cell with two electrodes which contains the DNA to be sequenced in a buffer solution. Under an applied potential, DNA migrates, and when it goes through the pore, it suppresses the background current generated by the ions in the buffer solution by blocking the tiny pore. After the DNA completely passes through the nanopore, the current recovers to the original level. The DNA translocation time through the pore, and the amount of current drop from the background current, are correlated to the length and the sequence details of the DNA that passes through the pore. Researchers expect to have this technology available within a decade.