This month we published our report The future awakens: Life sciences and health care predictions 2022, where we discussed the future of medicine and how technologies such as genomics, precision therapies and artificial intelligence (AI) will shape our understanding of our own genetic make-up and ultimately improve patient outcomes. One technology that we didn’t highlight in the report, is nanotechnology, principally because we expect it to take more than five years to become a central part of healthcare. Nanotechnology has been touted as a technology that could revolutionise our world since the late 1950’s. However, scientific and economic barriers means the commercialisation of products incorporating nanotechnology in life sciences has been limited. Despite this lack of commercialisation, a new wave of nanotech-based therapies are on the horizon. This week’s blog by Amen Sanghera, an analyst here at the Centre who studied the topic at university, looks at the potential benefits and current limitations of nanotechnology in the life sciences industry.
Nanotechnology is a broad term for science and engineering occurring at less than 100 nanometres (nm). To put this into context, the width of a human hair is 60,000 – to 80,000 nm.1 At this scale, the fundamental properties of materials change considerably. The properties of nanoparticles, such as increased reactivity and mechanical strength, can be altered by changes to the size, structure, surface characteristics and material used to make the nanoparticle.
There have been a number of significant applications of nanotechnology in computer technology and consumer goods. The few life science products that are commercially available are at significantly higher prices than their conventional counterparts.2 Despite this, the field continues to progress rapidly with exciting new applications on the horizon if scientific and economic hurdles can be overcome.
The potential of nanotechnology in the life sciences industry
Biological interactions occur at the nanoscale. Our developing understanding of theses interactions has led to a plethora of applications incorporating nanotechnology currently being researched. These include;
- Targeted cellular therapies: nanoparticles can deliver drugs to the exact location needed, greatly increasing their effectiveness and limiting toxicity to other tissues within the body.3 Moreover, nanoparticles can also be engineered to cross the blood brain barrier, giving rise to a potential solution for delivering drugs to the brain for difficult to treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s.4 Today, there are several drug formulations on the market that incorporate nanoparticles for drug delivery in cancers.5
- More effective anti-microbial technologies: with bacterial resistance to antibiotics becoming a growing concern across the globe, nanotechnology can provide an additional effective measure for preventing and controlling infections. Anti-microbial materials, such as nano-silver, can penetrate bacterial membranes more efficiently at the nanoscale.6 When incorporated into conventional materials, these characteristics can reduce our need for antibiotics whilst simultaneously safeguarding patients from acquiring infections. Already, there are some antimicrobial products incorporating nanotechnology on the market, including a nano-silver wound dressing.7
- Regenerative medicine and tissue engineering: being able to grow tissues or even organs for patients who may have lost them due to disease or injury, from a person’s own cells, is a holy grail for reconstructive and transplant surgery. Research into this field, fuelled by understanding the topography of tissues at the nanoscale, is looking to produce tissues whose function and structure mimics that of those found native in the body. Currently, research has struggled to produce fully functioning complex tissues such as organs. However, there are a number of commercially available skin substitutes available that act as nano-mimetic scaffolds that can be seeded with a patient’s own cells.8
- Diagnostic imaging: nanoparticles can be conjugated with imaging agents and targeting ligands so that they only attach to diseased cells or tissues. Moreover, they can also be engineered so that they fluoresce at different wavelengths (colours) by alternating their size and shape.9 The combination of these characteristics can allow surgeons and radiographers to delineate between diseased and healthy tissues more accurately, drastically improving our treatment of diseases and lowering the risk of harm to healthy tissues.
- Better medical devices: understanding the nanoscale structure of the human body, and combining that knowledge with 3D printing technology, can give rise to medical devices that are both highly functional and personalised to a specific patient’s needs.10 Researchers have found that integrating graphene and carbon nanotubes into lithium-ion batteries can increase the capacity of batteries three-fold.11 Indeed, the successful incorporation of these advances into pacemaker technology could reduce the number of pacemaker replacements that occur across the globe due to battery drain.
Despite the many novel potential applications of nanotechnology, its use in life sciences is still hampered by a number of hurdles that need to be overcome before these applications transition from the bench to the bedside more frequently. These limitations include:
- Safety and controllability: the in-vivo (taking place inside an organism) use of nanotechnology still raises concerns regarding its effect on the body both in the short and long term.12 Due to the small size of particles used in therapies, these particles can evade the immune system altogether, bypass natural barriers or accumulate in certain tissues, sometimes resulting in a mass that the body is unable to easily clear. Some of these concerns can also be a benefit, depending on the application of the technology. However, the key issue is around the extent to which we can control these safety concerns to suit the technology’s application.
- Manufacturing at scale: some materials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes are complex, take considerable time and energy to produce, and thereby still have a high cost to purchase. In 2016, one gram of graphene cost $100 to produce, highlighting the need to optimise the manufacturing process so that prices can be driven down further.13
- Cost and economics: the limiting factors above give rise to an environment in which the cost of bringing some of the more novel nanotechnological solutions to market will be inherently more risky and expensive than already established methods of treating health problems. Currently, some nanoparticle formulations available on the market to treat cancer are significantly more expensive than their conventional counter parts, with some demonstrating negligible effect to patient survival. However, these therapies also provide decreased toxicity to patients.14 This raises a debate of whether these therapies justify their increased costs to patients and healthcare providers.
The potential for nanotechnology to revolutionise the treatment of diseases is gaining traction. However, it is also still a long way off from being a ubiquitous go to technology in life sciences R&D and even more so on the front line of health care. To drive the development of nanotechnology, the question of how much time and money we are willing to invest in tackling the scientific challenges holding it back requires answers. With increasing health care costs and the cost of life sciences R&D remaining high, the business case to bring nanotechnology to the forefront of health care treatments may currently be hard and too risky to justify investment. However, given that nature figured out how to effectively operate at the nanoscale a long time ago, it’s for the industry to continue pushing to catch up.