Image Credit: Keithley Instruments (Click to enlarge)
Nanotechnology could change human biology forever. From prosthetic limbs and new burn treatments, to cancer detection and bones that heal in days or weeks, nanotech could be the future of medicine.
Nanotechnology is any technology that allows for manipulation of matter beginning at the nanometer (nm) scale, commonly on the 1–100 nm range. According to nanomedical expert Frank Boehm, "[t]he ability to work at this scale will allow for the fabrication of unique materials and devices with improved and novel properties, such as enhanced water repellency (superhydrophobicity) or the increased performance of chemical reactions (catalysis) due to dramatically increased active surface areas."
Currently, nanomedical devices are typically made of special kinds of nanomaterials like nanoparticles, solid or hollow nanoshells, nanotubes and hollow nanospheres. While these technologies are "still quite rudimentary and passive," because they simply let the bloodstream carry them along, Boehm says future devices will navigate with synthetic derivatives of flagella or cilia.
The most advanced nanotechnology we have right now are the gold nanoshells, 100-200nm in diameter, which are solid silica cores covered by a very thin gold skin. It's used in AuroLase Therapy, where the gold nanoshells are guided to cancer cells and activated by a laser light that makes them collapse, release cancer drugs and destroy tumors. (It's still undergoing trials.) Other similar technologies are underway.
What's the future of nanomedicine? Boehm posits this nanomedical concept, an imaging device just one micron wide. Thousands could work together to map an entire human vascular system.
These devices could provide an amazingly high-resolution map of a patient's veins and arteries, letting doctors know the thickness of various pathways or where plaque is building up in the bloodstream. Thus, they could be used to let doctors know whether a patient is at risk of an aneurysm or heart attack.
Autonomous nanomedical devices could be used to quickly identify and neutralize toxins, as well as supplement the immune system. They'd basically hunt down threats to an organism's health and destroy them. Nanoretinal implants could provide blind individuals with full vision, or augment regular human vision. The possibilities are endless; they could even extend the human lifespan. One Indian review concluded that "[o]nce nanomechanics are available, the ultimate dream of every healer, medicine man and physician throughout recorded history will at last become a reality."
Would it be safe? You can probably let your fever dreams of grey goo go. Nanomaterials are present in "order-of-magnitude higher" levels in our environment, and are generally far less deadly than household cleaning products or insectides which we encounter every day.
But scientists don't yet adequately understand the potential effects. Because of their high surface-mass ratio, nanoparticles are highly reactive and could trigger unforeseen chemical reactions. Some could be toxic. Or because of their "large surface area, reactivity and electrical charge," they could agglomerate, clumping together and forming much bigger lumps of material.
Slate says you shouldn't be concerned, saying that "technologically wonderful as engineered nanomaterials are, many of them don't seem as worrisome as imagined when seen in the cold light of commercial reality." Development, research and production techniques will minimize risks, and scientists are already busy tackling safety concerns.