Nanotechnology: The Next Big Small Thing in Health Care

Nanotechnology’s impact has been felt in almost every industry, from pharmaceuticals and robotics to energy, automotive, and aerospace. Frost & Sullivan has analyzed this cross-industry impact, and has identified miniaturization and the concept of innovating to zero as important global Mega Trends.

As early as 1998, Frost & Sullivan dedicated an innovation tracker to profile the advances made in nanotechnology globally. This was three years before Michael Crichton’s Prey thrilled—and scared—readers with the possibilities and the dangers of nanotechnology. Since then, nanotechnology has grown—not quite into an industry, but rather a multibillion-dollar industry enabler. Nanotechnology’s impact has been felt in almost every industry, from pharmaceuticals and robotics to energy, automotive, and aerospace. Frost & Sullivan has analyzed this cross-industry impact, and has identified miniaturization and the concept of innovating to zero as important global Mega Trends.

One of the reasons why nanoparticles are so well-received is that at the nanoscale, the properties of a material are fundamentally different than at the macro level. This is because the surface area-to-volume ratio is at its highest at the nanoscale, making the material more reactive. Nanoparticles have several benefits that have resulted in their widespread use in drug delivery, medical devices and clinical diagnostics:

  • Nanoparticles (greater than 100 nanometers, or nm) are able to better penetrate cells and cellular components, including the nucleus.
  • Nanocarriers are able to achieve highly specific drug targeting and delivery without affecting the surrounding healthy tissues.
  • Nanocoating is able to impart greater strength and better physical protection without increasing the weight of medical devices, especially implants.
  • Nanocoatings and nanoscale surface modifications have been proven to improve biocompatibility and impart multi-functional properties to a material.

Over the last 10 years, the use of nanotechnology in health care has grown along three avenues: vehicles for drug delivery, coating of medical devices, and sensors for diagnosis.

Nanocoated Medical Devices

Nanoparticles are used to coat metallic surfaces of medical devices, particularly implants, with properties that they do not usually possess—and without which their utility may be short-lived. For instance, researchers at the University of Plymouth in England have combined silver nanoparticles, hydroxyapatite and titanium oxide into a nanocoating that, when applied to titanium dental implants, was found to inhibit bacterial growth by 97.5%. The coating acted as an anti-biofilm surface, which also helped the implant integrate into the bone.

In March 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved CeloNova Biosciences’ Cobra PzF stent for coronary applications. The stent has a cobalt-chromium frame, which is coated with a nanometer-thin layer of Polyzene-F (also known as PzF), a proprietary coating that the San Antonio company developed. PzF is a polymer whose addition to the metallic surface imparts biocompatibility and anti-thrombogenicity and accelerates coronary endothelialization. In other words, the polymer coating masks the metallic nature of the stent and presents it as a biocompatible material. This reduces the incidence and intensity of implant rejection by the body. The PzF nanoparticles on the surface also subdue thrombosis, or blood clotting. The surface modification promotes the migration of endothelial cells to the implant site and does not offer any grip or favorable clotting factors.

Pharmaceuticals and Drug Delivery

The FDA has approved 51 nanomedicines, or nanoparticle-based platforms, for drug delivery or medical imaging; more than 75 products based on these platforms are in various stages of clinical trials. More than 40% of these products were subjected to clinical trials after 2014, and more than 80% after 2010, suggesting that there is a healthy pipeline of products that will hit the market in the coming years.

While micelles were the popular delivery vehicle in the early 2000s, Frost & Sullivan noticed a shift toward the use of nanocrystals and polymeric nanoparticles in the last decade. These nano-based drug delivery systems cater to a diverse range of therapeutic indications including cancer, hepatitis C, respiratory disorders and fungal infections. The next generation of nanoparticles being developed at university research labs includes mesoporous nanoparticles conjugated with peptides, antibodies and other entities; and stimuli-sensitive, aptamer-gated and multistage nanoparticles.

Nano-Biosensors for Disease Diagnosis

The diversity of nanosensors is staggering. In February 2017, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden published their work in developing a nanosensor using graphene and boron nitride to detect single nucleotides in a DNA molecule. This nanoscale accuracy holds great potential for molecular diagnosis. Late last year, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported the development of nanosensors to study cancer tissue physiology and reaction to therapies. The researchers encapsulated protease-sensing nanoparticles with magnetic particles. When these particles are subjected to alternating magnetic fields, the metal heats up, expands, and releases the protease sensors into the tissue. The sensors then interact with tumor-specific proteins, which are easily detected by bioassays, ensuring a high degree of accuracy and sensitivity.

The Road Ahead

Innovations in nanotechnology are occurring at a rapid pace. A quick search on PubMed for the term “nanosensor” produces more than 500 scientific publications in the last five years. During the same period, 40 clinical studies have been published in the general area of nanomedicine. Both facts indicate that research interest is strong, and research is being conducted keeping clinical applications in mind. Indeed, these miniature sensor systems have a lot riding on them. Continuous patient monitoring, implantable and ingestible sensors, and nanorobots can only be realized if these systems deliver accurate, safe and reliable information.

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