Nanotechnology in Healthcare: Getting Smaller and Smarter  | IT Support and Hardware for Clinics |
“Nano” means smaller than micro-sculptures on pin-point

Nanotechnology is hardly comprehensible by the average human mind, because it is in a completely different dimension. Somewhere at the molecular and atomic level. Do you remember the micro-sculptures in the eye of a needle? Compared to the nanometer, the basic unit of measurement in nanotechnology, these are still huge. A nanometer is a million times smaller than the length of an ant. A sheet of paper is about 100, 000 nanometers thick. The ratio of the Earth to a child’s marble is roughly the ratio of a meter to a nanometer.

Essentially, nanotechnology comprises science, engineering and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers. It is basically manipulating and controlling materials at the atomic and molecular level. Amazing, right?


The Story of Nanotechnology – From tiny “demons” to nanorobots in bloodstreams

As part of an 1871 thought experiment Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell imagined tiny “demons” that could redirect atoms one at a time. However, it was a long way to go from there until the birth of nanotechnology. The term molecular engineering was actually coined by MIT professor Arthur Robert von Hippel in the 1950s. On the evening of December 29, 1959, the famous physicist Richard Feynman described in his after–dinner lecture at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society how the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica could be written on the head of a pin, and how all the world’s books could fit in a pamphlet.

Continuing the thought experiment, Kim Eric Drexler, an MIT undergraduate in the mid–1970s, envisioned that molecule–sized machines could manufacture almost anything. In his book, Drexler described nanotechnology’s future role in revolutionizing other areas of science and technology that would lead to breakthroughs in medicine, artificial intelligence, and astronomy. His idea of an “assembler” could “place atoms in almost any reasonable arrangement,” thus allowing us to build almost anything that the laws of nature will allow.


Later, in 1991 carbon nanotubes were discovered, which are about 100 times stronger than steel only one–sixth their weight, and have unusual heat and conductivity characteristics. The Juno spacecraft currently on its way to Jupiter uses carbon nanostructure composite to provide electrical grounding, discharge static, and reduce weight. From the beginning it was inevitable that this technology would be used in medicine. Now, we are about to reach this point.

All kinds of nano under the microscope

Nanotechnology has two basic strands. The first one is the Drexlerian molecule-sized machine, which is able to build and manipulate its environment at the atomic level. The second one is “biological” nanotech, which basically uses DNA and the machinery of life to create unique structures made of proteins or DNA (as a building material).


1) DNA-based origami robots

One of the most forward–thinking experiments proved that DNA–based nanorobots can be inserted into a living cockroach and later perform logical operations upon command such as releasing a molecule stored within it. Such nanorobots are also called origami robots since they can unfold and deliver drugs, could eventually be able to carry out complex programs including diagnoses or treatments. One of the most astonishing feats is the accuracy of delivery and control of these nanobots, which are equivalent to a computer system. The other one is that the same basic design principles that apply to typical full-size machine parts can also be applied to DNA.

Origami Robot Made From Pig Tissue Offers Non-Invasive Way To Retrieve Swallowed Batteries2) Scallop-like microbots and nanoswimmers

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute have been experimenting with exceptionally micro-sized – smaller than a millimeter – robots that literally swim through your bodily fluids and could be used to deliver drugs or other medical relief in a highly-targeted way. These scallop-like microbots are designed to swim through non-Newtonian fluids, like your bloodstream, around your lymphatic system, or across the slippery goo on the surface of your eyeballs.

ETH Zurich and Technion researchers have developed an elastic “nanoswimmer” polypyrrole (Ppy) nanowire about 15 micrometers (millionths of a meter) long and 200 nanometers thick that can move through biological fluid environments at almost 15 micrometers per second. The nanoswimmers might be programmed to deliver drugs and magnetically controlled to swim through the bloodstream to target cancer cells, for example.


3) Ant-like nanoengines

Ant–like robots are controlled magnetically, are very fast, can locate, and use tools. Moving through even flexible surfaces they can construct three–dimensional structures at an amazing pace. They could revolutionize both biotechnology and electronics manufacturing.

University of Cambridge researchers have developed the world’s tiniest engine, made of gold nanoparticles bound together with temperature-responsive gel polymers, capable of a force per unit-weight nearly 100 times higher than any motor or muscle. Researchers named the nanomachine ANT, since as real ants, they produce large forces for their weight.

Exploding polymer-coated gold nanoparticles in the world’s tiniest engine (credit: Yi Ju/University of Cambridge NanoPhotonics)4) Bacteria-powered robots

Drexel University engineers have developed a method for using electric fields to help microscopic bacteria-powered robots detect obstacles in their environment and navigate around them. It means that robots navigate with the help of electric fields, and they can be programmed into getting to a certain point or changing its route or avoid/go through objects.

Bacteria-powered robots might bring amazing changes in healthcare, which include delivering medication exactly to the point where it is needed, manipulating stem cells to direct their growth, or building a microstructure, for example.