Nanomedicine: Fighting Our Biggest Battles on the Smallest Battlefields

By: Kameron Sprigg

Chronic disease poses the greatest challenge to the modern healthcare system[1,2]. Cells are where disease occurs, so, perhaps the solution to our struggle with chronic disease is by manipulating cells and their environments with nanomedicine (NM).

Nanotechnology (NT) is an expanding field of research across all sectors of industry and research. NT includes any device used between one and 100 nanometers (nm)[3], or in a biological context, the size of a cell’s machinery.

The key to NT is that molecules gain new properties when their size is below a material specific threshold[4]. Melting point, optical properties, electrical conductance[5], and even quantum effects[6] of nanoparticles (NPs) can all be different from their macroscopic counterparts. In biology and medicine, these properties allow NT to interact with individual cells, letting us fix the exact problem in the cell, or detect illness.

Just a few uses of NM include delivering gene therapy to specific cells[7], or drugs through the blood brain barrier[8]. Tissue regeneration[9], regulating stem cell therapy[10], reducing arterial plaque[11], and detecting the presence of infection are also among the possibilities[12]. Some research, like that taking place at Brock[13] seeks to make actual machines that produce a specific effect inside of cells or their environments, called “nanomachines”. In the United States, $1.4 billion[14] are invested each year in NT research like the above.

Tissue regeneration is a fascinating use of NT, such as when treating structural bone injuries or disease. For example, nearly one in five of all women over the age of fifty have osteoporosis[15]. Osteoporosis decreases bone density, making breaks and fractures significantly more likely in daily life[16]. Current treatment for osteoporosis focuses on preventing the disease’s progression[17]. Once bone density is lost, it is nearly impossible to regain it[18], and thus a true “cure” is currently impossible.

Standard of care for repairing other types of bone damage currently involves the use of various metallic braces, or bone grafts[19]. Guiding bone recovery after a graft can be difficult, since inorganic materials may interact improperly with the biological systems[18]. Bone is a complex organ required for development of both red blood cells and some immune cells. Thus, non-self-materials may trigger rejection, while stimulating self-growth is difficult to target[19].

NM however, through the use of spherical carrier NPs, offers a solution that could eliminate the need for bone grafts[19]. The sphere can be designed such that its surface is stimulated by the environment of the injured bone, causing the sphere’s contents to be released. The carriers can thus transport growth hormone to osteoclasts (bone builders), stimulating their activity. This leads to the bone recovering fully, with no risk of transplant rejection as is seen in current treatment. This method could be applied to both osteoporosis and bone graft replacement[19].

Closer to home, researchers at Brock University have conducted investigations into a possible application of NM. The team of  students led by Dr. Feng Li have researched using microscopic machines made out of gold and DNA as a means of detecting tuberculosis in a matter of minutes[13]. Currently, the fastest diagnostic test takes three days[20].

Gold can be used safely as a NP in medicine since it does not interact with biological systems. When the average particle size of gold is between 9-48nm, the light that it absorbs most is different from “normal” sized gold, which absorbs all but yellow light nearly perfectly[12]. This property can be used to determine the presence of an infection.

The Brock team took advantage of this property by creating a 20nm gold particle. They then attached short strands of DNA, which can be designed to match with only one species. The DNA serves two purposes in the design. First, it breaks itself one small piece at a time (a nucleotide) which propels the entire NP a short distance. This works in the same way burning fuel propels an engine. Second, due to its specific sequence, it attaches to only a single species of bacteria or virus. If the bacteria is present in the blood, the molecule will begin giving off light when the two pieces bind to each other. The entire process takes place within twenty to thirty minutes of injection. The light from this can easily be detected in a lab or clinical setting, making the process more than 200 times faster than the current diagnosis of Tuberculosis, which currently takes two to three days to detect using a skin test.

This method is ingenious in its use of DNA. Since the attached DNA can be matched to any bacteria or cell type, it can be used as a diagnostic for any infection, or even cancers, which have mutated their DNA from healthy cells, and often have some common genetic markers.

Faster diagnoses like this will not only improve the quality of life of patients, but also save lives that may have been lost because of delayed treatment. There are drawbacks, however. This particular approach acts more as a confirmation tool, since identifying a disease in this way requires the NP’s to be tailor made for one infection. This would not necessarily be helpful when trying to identify an illness in an acute hospital setting, except when used as a process of elimination.

Other methods will be devised both in therapeutics, and in diagnostics as our ability to control and create NPs improves. Indeed, the topics above are only a small sampling of the upcoming use of nanotechnology in medicine. Research in NT is only one of many steps towards making improvements to our healthcare. Like all basic research, the findings tend to take  several years before being implemented into common practice. However, the information described herein has been underway for years already. Soon, we can expect the incredible potential of Nanotechnology to be harnessed for our health.


[1] McPhail, S. (2016). Multimorbidity in chronic disease: impact on health care resources and costs. Risk Management And Healthcare Policy, Vol 2016, Iss Issue 1, Pp 143-156 (2016),, 143.

[2] Wade, T. J., Bourgeault, I. L., & Neiterman, E. (2016). The social dimensions of health and health care in Canada. Toronto: Pearson.

[3] Nanotechnology. (2017). Retrieved February 11, 2017, from http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ScienceResearch/Nanotech/ucm209177.htm

[4] Satalkar, P., Elger, B. S., & Shaw, D. M. (2015). Defining Nano, Nanotechnology and Nanomedicine: Why Should It Matter? Science and Engineering Ethics,22(5), 1255-1276. doi:10.1007/s11948-015-9705-6

[5] Wu, R., Zhou, K., Yue, C. Y., Wei, J., & Pan, Y. (2015). Recent progress in synthesis, properties and potential applications of SiC nanomaterials. Progress in Materials Science,72, 1-60. doi:10.1016/j.pmatsci.2015.01.003

[6] He, J., Wan, Y., & Xu, L. (2007). Nano-effects, quantum-like properties in electrospun nanofibers. Chaos, Solitons & Fractals,33(1), 26-37. doi:10.1016/j.chaos.2006.09.023

[7] Naoum, G. E., Tawadros, F., Farooqi, A. A., Qureshi, M. Z., Tabassum, S., Buchsbaum, D. J., & Arafat, W. (2016). Role of nanotechnology and gene delivery systems in TRAIL based therapies. Ecancermedicalscience,10. doi:10.3332/ecancer.2016.660

[8] Gendelman, H. E., Anantharam, V., Bronich, T., Ghaisas, S., Jin, H., Kanthasamy, A. G., . . . Mallapragada, S. K. (2015). Nanoneuromedicines for degenerative, inflammatory, and infectious nervous system diseases. Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine,11(3), 751-767. doi:10.1016/j.nano.2014.12.014

[9] Walmsley, G. G., Mcardle, A., Tevlin, R., Momeni, A., Atashroo, D., Hu, M. S., . . . Wan, D. C. (2015). Nanotechnology in bone tissue engineering. Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine, 11(5), 1253-1263. doi:10.1016/j.nano.2015.02.013

[10] Corradetti, B., & Ferrari, M. (2016). Nanotechnology for mesenchymal stem cell therapies.Journal of Controlled Release,240, 242-250. doi:10.1016/j.jconrel.2015.12.042

[11] Schoenhagen, P., & Conyers, J. (2008). Nanotechnology and Atherosclerosis Imaging: Emerging Diagnostic and Therapeutic Applications. Recent Patents on Cardiovascular Drug Discovery,3(2), 98-104. doi:10.2174/157489008784705377

[12] Huang, X., & El-Sayed, M. A. (2010). Gold nanoparticles: Optical properties and implementations in cancer diagnosis and photothermal therapy.Journal of Advanced Research,1(1), 13-28. doi:10.1016/j.jare.2010.02.002

[13] Yang, X., Tang, Y., Mason, S. D., Chen, J., & Li, F. (2016). Enzyme-Powered Three-Dimensional DNA Nanomachine for DNA Walking, Payload Release, and Biosensing. ACS Nano, 10(2), 2324-2330. doi:10.1021/acsnano.5b07102

[14] NNI Budget. (2017). Retrieved February 11, 2017, from https://www.nano.gov/about-nni/what/funding

[15] What Women Need to Know. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2017, from https://www.nof.org/preventing-fractures/general-facts/what-women-need-to-know/

[16] Deb, P. (2013). Chapter-03 Pathogenesis of Osteoporosis. Postmenopausal Osteoporosis: Basic and Clinical Concepts, 18-23. doi:10.5005/jp/books/11789_3

[17] Chan, C. Y., Mason, A., Cooper, C., & Dennison, E. (2016). Novel advances in the treatment of osteoporosis. British Medical Bulletin, 119(1), 129-141. doi:10.1093/bmb/ldw033

[18] Martini, F., Tallitsch, R. B., & Nath, J. L. (2017). Human anatomy. NY, NY: Pearson.

[19] Walmsley, G. G., Mcardle, A., Tevlin, R., Momeni, A., Atashroo, D., Hu, M. S., . . . Wan, D. C. (2015). Nanotechnology in bone tissue engineering. Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine, 11(5), 1253-1263. doi:10.1016/j.nano.2015.02.013

[20] Testing for TB Infection. (2016, September 08). Retrieved February 25, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/tb/topic/testing/tbtesttypes.htm

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