OLLI Column | Nanoscience emerges in health care

March 29, 2014 

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s remember our annual booster shot at the beginning of every summer. Jonas Salk and his colleagues developed the first successful polio vaccine in 1952, with the first widespread trial in 1954 and deployment in 1955.

I well remember as a little boy (starting at 3 years old) waiting in line with my older brothers and little sister to get our annual polio booster shot at the beginning of each summer. How nice it was in the early 1960s when the Sabin oral vaccine became available; no more polio booster shots!

In fact, the widespread deployment of the polio vaccine was a watershed in human health care, causing an almost immediate decrease in polio of 85 to 90 percent within two years. Even so, just about every class I was in from elementary school through high school had at least one or two polio survivors.

Fast forward to 2014.

Almost 60 years since the first use of the polio vaccine, we are again on the cusp of a vast medical revolution. The evolutionary part of the new medical revolution has its roots in several scientific and technical breakthroughs in the 1970s and ’80s.

The development of fundamental tools to study materials at very small scales, the nanometer scale, including the invention of surface force microscopy, the discovery of tiny carbon spheres and tubes, and better understanding of manipulation of the matter at the nanoscale.

We call these new developments nanoscience and nanotechnology and their use in medicine Nanomedicine.

What is a nanometer? The scientific definition is 0.000000001 meters or about 0.000000004 inches. Not really a useful definition. Let’s think about a nano-meter in terms of some items that are more familiar. Consider the diameter of a human hair, about 100 microns. Thus, the diameter of a human hair is 100,000 nm.

How about a water molecule? At a diameter of about 0.2 nm, five water molecules lined up a row equal about 1 nm. Pretty small, but now scientists and engineers are manipulating atoms into structures at the nanoscale and several nms to hundreds of nanometer size building blocks into useful articles. In turn, the building blocks are being assembled into larger structures in a hierarchical fashion similar to naturally occurring structures, including, say, the human liver or heart or bone. Some of these structures have obvious direct and profound implications for human health care.

Nanomedicine is in part the manipulation and assembling of matter into hierarchical structures useful to cure human disease. For example, nanoscience combined with other scientific and engineering breakthroughs such as 3-D printing and stem cell developments will lead to a revolution in biomaterials.

From replacement parts for our joints, but even more profoundly, replacement parts for soft tissue organs including the heart, liver and lungs, nanomedicine and good science and engineering will lead to personalized replacement parts.

For example, 3-D printing recently has been used in human patients to provide a splint for a malformed trachea. 3-D printing combined with tissue engineering and scaffolding approaches is being used to develop a wide variety of replacement parts for human patients. A future can be projected where the practice of such personalized medical care to replace diseased or damaged human tissue and organs is routine.

What about the use of nano-meter scale elements themselves for the treatment of human disease?

Particulates at the nanoscale have the potential to transform the treatment of a variety of human diseases. Let’s start with cancer. Only a few cancers are well-understood in terms of origin and cause. Few patients do not shudder in anticipation of the words “You have cancer.”

However, nanomedicine is ready to transform human cancer care from less-invasive and more refined surgical interventions based on a new generation of smaller and more precise instruments as well as earlier diagnoses, a key element to increase survival rates. Similar nano-elements and techniques used to create replacement organs can be used to create a new generation of multifunctional surgical instruments.

Imagine a Swiss army knife of instruments miniaturized to that 100 micron scale of the human hair diameter that can delicately remove, if required, one cancerous cell or even part of a cell at a time. Long-term circulation of particulates that introduce high oxygen levels in the blood stream could be used to retard the debilitating effects of emphysema.

“Smart Blood,” as envisioned by science-fiction writers such as John Scalzi, are closer than we think — there have been significant breakthroughs in the management of the immune response to foreign bodies such as “smart blood” components in just the past few years. We have a vision for our nanoparticulate drug delivery systems developed at Penn State that can be used in the same way as those annual polio booster shots that I took as a 3-year-old almost 60 years ago, but now for cancer, that permits the patient’s own immune system to reject the foreign and rogue tissue within their body that defines cancer.

The world of medicine is in a dramatic forward surge due to nanoscience and engineering that will create personalized, less invasive and more benign treatment of a host human maladies. Thus, the future is within our grasp with many millions of scientists and engineers the world over developing the nanoscience to transform human health care.

James H. Adair is professor of materials science and engineering, bioengineering and pharmacology at Penn State. You are invited to take Jim Adair’s OLLI course, Nanomedicine: An Emerging Discipline for Future Medical Care, Mondays 2-3:30 p.m., April 21 and 28. To register, go to www.olli.psu.edu or contact OLLI at 867-4278.

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