Interview conducted by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)
How are nanotechnology and nanomedicine defined?
The fundamental discipline of nanotechnology is poised to change virtually every aspect of our lives, in just about any sector we can think of.
It is defined as the capacity for the controlled manipulation of matter at scales in the range of from 1 nanometer (one billionth of a meter) to 100 nanometers.
Materials at this diminutive scale exhibit some surprising properties, which are far different than those of bulk (macroscale) materials in terms of significantly enhanced electrical conductivity, mechanical strength, wear and corrosion resistance, thermal conductivity, insulating properties, etc.
This is due to the fact that "nanomaterials" have much higher surface areas; hence a much greater proportion of the chemical makeup of these enhanced materials is made available for specific interactivity with their environments.
For example, nanocatalysts can be exponentially more active than their macroscale counterparts in that they have a far great number of active sites that are accessible for catalytic reactions.
There are already more than 1,600 nanotechnology enhanced products on the market; everything from superhydrophobic self-cleaning glass and bathroom tiles, to enhanced "clear" sunscreen lotions, and food products, to carbon nanotube reinforced automobile tires.1
The application of nanotechnology to medicine (nanomedicine) has an equally strong potential for shifting myriad paradigms in the field of medicine. This is because nanomedicine operates at the molecular, organellar, and cellular levels; precisely where disease processes find their genesis.
There is a rapidly growing global trend toward the development of more compact, minimally invasive, intelligent, more accurate, and efficacious medical technologies.
Although nanomedicine is still in its very early stages, we are already seeing the development of specialized nanoparticles, such as gold nanoshells and magnetic nanoparticles (e.g., Superparamagnetic Iron Oxide Nanoparticles - SPIONs) that are being used to specifically target and thermally destroy cancer cells without causing collateral damage to surrounding healthy cells and tissues. This is known as hyperthermia.
Hollow nanocarriers such as liposomes (comprised of lipids) or metallic, carbon, or polymeric nanoshells can deliver powerful anticancer drugs, and many other drug compounds specifically to diseased cells.
This translates to remarkable improvements in efficiency and a dramatic reduction in the side effects that we see when patients are "flooded" with conventional toxic chemotherapeutic drugs, for instance.
Nanoparticle based contrast agents such as magnetic nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes and quantum dots (semiconducting nanocrystals) are also being utilized to improve the resolution of medical imagery.
Please can you give a brief history of nanomedicine?
Nanomedicine has been considered a possibility ever since the concept of nanotechnology was first articulated in 1959 by Richard Feynman, in his famous Caltech talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”.
Feynman mentions that a friend of his:
“(Albert R. Hibbs) suggests a very interesting possibility for relatively small machines. He says that, although it is a very wild idea, it would be interesting in surgery if you could swallow the surgeon. You put the mechanical surgeon inside the blood vessel and it goes into the heart and "looks" around. (Of course the information has to be fed out.) It finds out which valve is the faulty one and takes a little knife and slices it out. Other small machines might be permanently incorporated in the body to assist some inadequately-functioning organ.” 2
In 1986 Eric Drexler proposed and popularized the notion of cell repair machines, which might repair damaged DNA, organelles and other cellular structures with great precision in massively parallel fashion, in his visionary book, Engines of Creation.3
In 1996, Robert Freitas Jr. articulated in astounding detail, a dazzling array of conceptual diamondoid nanomedical components and nanorobots. These were conveyed in the first of his brilliant Nanomedicine books (comprising a multi-book series), as well as via an extensive collection of papers and articles.4
First generation nanomedical capabilities, in the form of functionalized nanoparticles, comprising a wide range of organic and inorganic materials at various nanoscale dimensions, initially emerged in the early 1990’s, and have since undergone dramatically rapid expansion.
What excites you most about nanomedicine at present?
Currently, I am very excited to see the growing scope of nanomedical capabilities, encompassing imaging, hyperthermia, and drug delivery, which are being made possible by evermore clever combinations of unique nanomaterials and targeting agents.
Additionally, advanced modular nanosensors will enable exciting changes in medical diagnostics. One such device, described in an excellent chapter that was contributed to my book by research scientist and artist, Angelika Domschke, comprises a contact lens-integrated holographic nanosensor to enable the precise detection of glucose for diabetic patients.
Once matured, these capacities will have immense benefits in terms of positive patient outcomes and the alleviation of human suffering across the board.
Concomitantly, that the vetting processes toward the development of these nanomedicines are becoming more stringent (as they should be), and that the concept of utilizing green-derived, biodegradable, or recyclable nanomaterials, with an eye to circumventing potential hazards, is taking hold.
What I am most excited about, however, is to simply be present at a time when humanity is at the cusp of witnessing some truly remarkable and amazing advances in nanomedicine via the advent of autonomous nanodevices, which will be fabricated by (yet to be developed, but likely possible in ~10-30 years) molecular manufacturing (which in itself will be an astounding accomplishment), in conjunction with advanced AI (artificial intelligence).
Once these robust capabilities come online, the applications, benefits and possibilities for patients, as well as healthy individuals worldwide (e.g., via the potential end of the disease of aging) will be virtually limitless.
In what ways is our understanding of nanotechnology currently limited, and what research needs to be done in order to make significant advances in nanomedicine going forward?
Presently, there remain many unknowns as relates to the physiological and environment fates of the nanomaterials that are being intensely scrutinized for their potential utilization in nanotechnological applications, and in nanomedicine.
There are myriad subtle electronic, chemical thermal and mechanical interactions between nanomaterials and the particular environments within which they might be immersed, whether it is the human body or an environmental ecosystem, that are not yet fully understood.
These interactions will, of necessity, have to be methodically and thoroughly elucidated as a prerequisite to the widespread implementation of specific nanomaterials, intended for use as commercialized nanotechnology based enhancements or nanomedical diagnostic and therapeutic tools.
In 2009 you formed NanoApps Medical, Inc. Please can you outline the aim of this company?
The aim of NanoApps Medical, Inc. is to investigate and develop advanced, innovative, efficacious and cost effective nanomedical diagnostic and therapeutic devices and systems for the benefit of individuals globally.
The ideals to strive for will encompass the minimization or negation of invasiveness and negative side effects, while providing maximum benefits and positive outcomes for patients.
The big sky aim of the company would be to contribute in a significant way to facilitating affordable access to advanced nanomedical procedures for those individuals in remote and developing areas of the world, as well as those in developed areas.
What do you think the future holds for nanomedicine?
I believe that the future of nanomedicine holds incredibly immense positive potential toward the eradication of practically every known human disease state (inclusive of aging), as well as protection of the human body (via nanomedical immune system augmentation) from any (known or unknown) toxin, microorganism or infectious agent.
Drug resistance may become a thing of the past as offending bacteria and viruses are rapidly nanomechanically/thermally disabled by continuously patrolling immune system “sentinels”. (note: all of these activities will proceed completely imperceptibly to us, as these nanodevices will be so small; much smaller than individual cells).
Through the process of public consensus (there will undoubtedly be myriad ethical and moral considerations) and, of course, via one’s own personal choice, certain forms of human augmentation (physiological and/or cognitive) might be sanctioned toward what humans come to perceive as shared desired optimals.
Further into the future, nanomedicine may make prolonged space travel possible, hence, the exploration of deep space. As I describe in my book, in addition to the incorporation of robust nanomedical diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities into spacesuits, “Integrated nanomedical suites onboard spacecraft will also impart benefits in that envisioned nanomedical devices, systems, and associated infrastructures will represent the ultimate in extreme compactness and lightness (definite boons for space travel), yet be highly sophisticated, dynamic, and medically powerful with practical utility to rapidly and effectively address virtually any conceivable medical issue or emergency.”
These capacities might contribute to the support of future missions to the Moon, Mars and far beyond.
I also suggest that, “Indeed, it may be the case, as the timeline for the development of interstellar travel may be ~50 to 100 years out, that advanced autonomous nanomedical devices will be permanent residents within those individuals who select to be imbued with such enhancements.”
Where can readers find more information?
Additional information about my book, and as relates to nanomedicine generally may be found at the following links.
About Frank Boehm
Image credits: Haijin Liu
Frank has been involved with nanotechnology and especially nanomedicine since ~1996, and has been evolving numerous concepts and designs for advanced nanomedical diagnostic and therapeutic components, devices and systems to address myriad disease states.
His aim is to develop and transform these concepts into real world applications for global benefit.
He serendipitously encountered the concept of nanotechnology on the Internet in ~1996 and immediately become fascinated with its virtually limitless potential, particularly as relates to the field of medicine.
He passionately proceeded to evolve and textually articulate a number of advanced concepts and designs toward near-term and longer-term nanomedical components, devices, and systems.
Concomitantly, he initiated relationships with myriad research scientists and thought leaders in the disciplines of nanotechnology and nanomedicine, from across the globe.
In recognizing the immense potential of nanomedicine to impart positive paradigm shifts across the medical domain (e.g., precisely targeted drug delivery, vascular, neurological, and cellular plaque removal, completely non-invasive surgical procedures, physiological systems and longevity enhancement) he was deeply motivated to write more extensively on the topic.
In 2005, he garnered a publishing contract with CRC Press, and over the ensuing eight years compiled a book manuscript (along with seven contributing authors) entitled: Nanomedical Device and Systems Design, Challenges, Possibilities, Visions
In parallel, he managed to engage the interest of several researchers in the US and Canada in his nanomedical concepts, and in 2009 formed the startup, NanoApps Medical, Inc..
The aim of this company is to investigate and develop advanced, innovative and cost effective nanomedical diagnostic and therapeutic devices and systems for the benefit of individuals in both the developing and developed worlds.