From R&D analysis and pathogen detection to clinical diagnosis and drug delivery, the biomedical applications of nanotechnology, while still in their infancy, are starting to yield real results.
While much of the work is the province of academia, increasingly clinical labs as well as biotech and pharmaceutical companies are getting involved. Among several recent notable announcements:
-- Johnson & Johnson and Roche Holding Ltd. licensed Elan Corp. PLC's NanoCrystal technology, which enhances the performance of drugs with poor water-solubility.
-- Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital announced in PLoS Medicine that an injectable solution of magnetic nanoparticles can be used to track cancer in patients, reducing the need for surgery.
-- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the nanoparticle-based drug Abraxane (the first of what is called an albumin-bound nanoparticle paclitaxel) for treatment of metastatic breast cancer. Researchers say the drug is a more effective, less toxic alternative to Taxol.
The recently published "2005 Nanomedicine, Device & Diagnostic Report," from NanoBiotech News, finds 152 nanomedicine, nanodevice, and nanodiagnostic products currently under development in companies and academic research centers. "There are already products based on nanoscale materials that are being used in clinical applications," says James Baker, founder of the Center for Biologic Nanotechnology at the University of Michigan. He cites a nanocrystal silver burn cream, which is unique because "the small crystals have much more surface area than larger particles and, as such, are more effective in their antimicrobial action."
Baker, speaking in an online chat hosted by EurekAlert, predicted that "many drugs that have been either stabilized or delivered with nanoparticles will start appearing in the clinics." In some cases, the technology offers an alternative to the traditional methods of attacking disease targets.
By presenting drugs to the body in different ways using nanotechnology methods, "we may be able to use compounds that previously weren't therapeutically useful," says Jeffrey Schloss, who coordinates strategic nanotechnology development for the U.S. National Institutes of Health through his work with the National Human Genome Research Institute.
A key advantage for the technology is the ability to target specific cells, which could "improve the efficacy of the therapy while decreasing the toxicity," Baker says. Conventional drugs are typically taken up by many cell types, risking damage to normal tissue.
Nanobiotech is increasingly getting the attention of government agencies and the vendor community. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) funds nanotech research at various agencies.
The proposed budget for FY2005 is US$982 million -- about a 2-percent increase. While this increase is modest for an emerging technology, agencies that fund life science-related nanotech research are expected to get substantially higher percentage increases: A further $400 million has been earmarked for the NSF and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Some two-thirds of NNI funds are for university-related research spanning a wide range of topics. Additional government funding efforts provide further support for basic research into nanobiotech. For instance, last fall the National Cancer Institute launched a $144-million, five-year NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer. Andrew von Eschenbach, NCI director, said at the time: "Nanotechnology has the potential to radically increase our options for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer."
Growth of consortia
There is growing interest on the vendor side, too. Lucent Technologies Inc. teamed with the state of New Jersey and the New Jersey Institute of Technology to create the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium. The goals of the NJNC, which started operations in 2003, are to speed the development of nanotechnology-based drug discovery and diagnostic devices and to work with pharmaceutical companies to develop commercial products in these areas.
Last summer, Accelrys Inc. launched the Accelrys Nanotechnology Consortium, which aims to extend existing tools and create new software tools to aid the design of nanomaterials and nanodevices.
"The (idea) for the consortium is to bridge between chemistry and engineering," says Scott Kahn, Accelrys' chief science officer. "(We) focus squarely on the chemistry and extending computational methods." He notes that the types of tools currently used in nanotech development include modeling, simulation, and informatics tools. For example, Accelrys' Materials Studio suite includes a variety of tools used to test and validate nanotech research ideas.
Kahn says some researchers use the tools to "visualize or explore the energetics of interactions." For example, a researcher can put together two molecules and see if a test nano-sized molecule and drug target stay together or fall apart.
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