Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nanotechnology & Cancer: The Cure Rx Couldn't Find?

Author: Ashley Warner

Science fiction has intrigued humankind for centuries. However, the imaginations of science fiction writers pale in comparison to the transcendent reality of nanotechnology and its effect on cancer. By utilizing nanotechnology, scientists have been able to target specific cancer cells and destroy them without harming the surrounding healthy cells. This allows doctors to not only treat cancer cells, but also possibly prevent cancer before it begins. Clearly, you don’t need an online biology degree to see that nanotechnology treatment is efficacious without the harmful side effects of conventional cancer treatments.

As most nanotechnology tools are smaller than a human cell, they can be used to detect and treat cancer in its earliest stages, with few to no side effects and extremely high precision. Better yet, these tools will eventually enable physicians to treat cancer at the genetic and cellular level by designing a treatment plan based on an individual’s genetic code. In the not so distant future, not only will nanotechnology enable treatment of cancer, it will be used to determine substances in the body that are known precursors to cancer.

While there is plenty of room for the field of nanotechnology to grow, there are already a variety of effective cancer treatments that employ this revolutionary tool. In one type of cancer treatment, carbon nanotubes, microscopic rods made of synthetic carbon, are inserted into cancer cells. These tubes are so small that thousands of them can fit inside a single cell. After the rods are inserted, they are exposed to near-infrared light, which heats them up and kills the cancer cells in minutes, while leaving the surrounding healthy cells undamaged. Besides leaving normal body tissue unscathed, this method developed by Stanford University also enables the doctor to track the treatment in real time.

Similarly, quantum dots, which are fluorescent nanoparticles, are able to detect a wide range of diseases and forms of cancer. However, they have previously been made of toxic metals and therefore were unable to be used for treating cancer patients. In a breakthrough, especially for pervasive forms of cancer such as cancer of the lymph nodes, researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York have developed a synthetic, non-toxic material that is compatible with the human body.

According to, nanotechnology is also used to deliver anticancer drugs, like liposomal doxorubicin, to tumors. Called liposomes, these nanoparticles can be used by themselves or in conjunction with other cancer-fighting therapies. Yet another of the many uses for nanoparticles has been to prevent the spread of metastatic breast cancer by binding with a substance found on breast tumor cells but not on healthy cells. This University of Michigan study, has found that the potency of a breast cancer drug can be increased by as much as 6,700 percent by using this method.

Clearly scientists have barely scratched the surface of nanotechnology and its almost unimaginable benefits not only to the cancer patient, but also to those who are healthy. Being able to anticipate the onset of cancer, as well as other many devastating illnesses, will hopefully enable doctors to prevent most of the deaths from them and in time, eradicate these diseases completely.

About the author:

Ashley Warner is a graduate student working toward her Masters in Conservation Biology. She currently resides in Washington state.

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