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Small but Powerful Meds

Particles from one billionth to 100 billionths of a meter in size can be used to help diagnose an illness faster and more accurately.


Applications of tiny bits of matter in medicine promise breakthroughs in diagnostics and treatment for major diseases, but they won’t become available in doctors’ offices or hospitals near you anytime soon.

These potential cures, collectively known as nanomedicine, take advantage of matter properties that are evident only at an atomic or molecular level. Particles from one billionth to 100 billionths of a meter in size can be used to help diagnose an illness faster and more accurately than current medical tools and techniques allow and administer medicines directly to the diseased cells, according to medical experts.

“These drugs would be available in the body only where they are needed,” says Edward C. Lawrence, professor of finance at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Targeted treatment

Doxil, the first nanodrug to treat different types of cancer, was introduced in the United States in 1995. Since then, more drugs based on relatively “simple and straightforward” applications of nanotechnology have been approved, according to Jeffrey McCullough, a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Now, nearly 250 nanomedical products are in use or in clinical trials worldwide, according to a 2013 study by the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. McCullough was a co-author of the study.

"Cancer therapy is probably the most exciting [application] and promises the most dramatic breakthroughs."

—Jeffrey McCullough

In the future, nanomedicines may take the form of novel compounds or of delivery vehicles for existing medicines such as chemotherapeutic drugs. The most advanced nanomedicines would work as microscopic robots. Once inside the body, they would identify a disease, deliver a drug directly to its site and monitor the treatment’s progress while evading the body’s immune system to prevent adverse reactions.

Many researchers view nanomedicine as having great potential for improvements in cancer treatment. “Cancer therapy is probably the most exciting [application] and promises the most dramatic breakthroughs,” McCullough says.


The field of nanomedicines is still in its early stages. Experts claim that the largest obstacle to the mainstreaming of nanomedicines is toxicity. Nanomaterials have unique properties that make assessing their toxicity challenging, according to W. Shane Journeay, a Toronto-based physician and nanotoxicology consultant.

Still, experts believe research will improve scientists’ understanding of toxicity and overcome other barriers. 

Nanocures in development

Cancer antibodies: The body’s weapon against germs, antibodies carrying chemotherapy drugs would detect, invade and kill cancer cells. It is being developed by Seattle Genetics Inc. and ImmunoGen Inc.

Diabetes nanoparticle: A solid core of insulin and other agents inside the particle would mimic the pancreas, enabling users to maintain healthy sugar levels. Research is on at North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Rheumatoid arthritis remedy: Joint mobility would be restored thanks to a nanoparticle delivering drugs directly to diseased cells. Northeastern University is developing this technology.

Bionic retina: Designed to restore sight to patients with diseases causing vision loss, nanosize components incorporated into a tiny implant would be placed in the eye. It is being developed by Nano Retina Inc.


Andrzej Zwaniecki is a staff writer for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.