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Nanotechnology 101

Wyss Institute-DNA Nanorobot (1)

This programmable DNA nanorobot, created by Harvard researchers, was modeled on the body’s own immune system. Image created by Campbell Strong, Shawn Douglas, and Gaël McGill of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

It sounds like the creative genius of a science fiction writer: nanobots that move through the body, delivering signals to kill cancer cells. How about a hand held device that can diagnose cancer and disease – didn’t Dr. McCoy have one of those on Star Trek?

These revolutionary technologies actually exist and they fall into the broad field of nanotechnology, which involves materials on the nanometer scale (a billionth of a meter). “Nanotechnology allows us to control processes of nature at a very small scale, which can lead to profound capabilities at a larger scale,” says Dr. Anita Goel, Chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym and Nanobiosym Diagnostics. This technology contributes to areas as diverse as “healthcare, clean energy and water filtration,” she says.

Boston is ranked in the top six “nanometro” areas in the world, with 44 companies embracing nanotechnology, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. These companies innovate in three major areas: healthcare, materials and tools or instruments. Their applications are myriad and diverse, too: diagnostics, drug development, nanosurgery, medical tools, bone replacement products, hormone therapy and scaffolds for nerve regeneration.

As residents of this nanometro area, we thought it might be helpful to bring you some key innovations happening in our own backyard. This guide represents many of the most advanced nanotech creations in the world.

Enhancing Pharmaceutical Drug Delivery

Some of the greatest achievements in Boston nanotech are in drug delivery. Abraxis Bioscience’s (now Celgene’s) Abraxane was the first nanoparticle drug on the market in 2005, targeting breast cancer metastases. Since then, hundreds of nanodrugs have entered development. Targeted drug therapy involving nanocarriers has a forecasted $54 billion market share by 2021.

In the drug development process, there are potential drug candidates with undesirable qualities that can be made better by encapsulating the drug as a nanoparticle. Researchers can design drugs to be more bioavailable (absorbed and made physiologically available to the body). Nanoparticles can also reduce the amount of drug needed to be effective and can make drugs more soluble in the body, too. One of the companies at the forefront in tackling these problems is the Woburn, Massachusetts-based Aphios, which holds a new patent on polymer nanospheres, formed using proprietary supercritical fluid technology, to enhance solubility of poorly soluble drugs.

Nanoparticles are also instrumental in “targeting drugs to specific disease sites, including metastases, targeting selectively without damaging normal cells,” said Dr. Trevor P. Castor, President and CEO of Aphios. The company currently has polymer nanosphere drugs in research or preclinical phases of development for prostate cancer, melanoma, Multiple Sclerosis, and HIV latency. A drug for the oral delivery of insulin for diabetic patients is also being developed, which would eliminate the need for insulin injections. One of the benefits of nanotechnology, according to Dr. Castor, is in improving existing drugs: “Re-purposing a drug could shorten the clinical trial process by a number of years,” he said. This would provide dramatic cost savings in drug development. 

Diagnosing Disease 

Also at the forefront of the nanotechnology game is a very different application: Cambridge-based Nanobiosym Diagnostics has developed the first portable device, called Gene-RADAR, that can rapidly test for diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV, E.Coli and even certain types of cancer. Ebola testing is under development. With this miniature doctor’s office, a small drop of blood is spread onto a thumbnail-sized chip and then placed in the iPad-sized device for analysis. Gene-RADAR uses genetic fingerprinting to make a diagnosis. Also incorporated into this device is technology from the emerging field of nanobiophysics – a new science which merges physics, nanotechnology, and biomedicine – pioneered in part by Dr. Goel.

“There are four billion people on earth who don’t have access to adequate healthcare testing and therapeutics. We can create tools and technology for anyone to have access to healthcare,” she says. Gene-RADAR would make early diagnosis significantly easier in countries that lack adequate healthcare infrastructures.

“In the developing world, there is a lot of delay – no hospitals, roads, or centralized labs. We are working in Rwanda; there are two centralized PCR machines in the whole country for measuring HIV viral load, and they need 200,000 tests every year,” says Dr. Goel. Gene-RADAR testing reduces the time to diagnose HIV from two weeks or more to under an hour and it is affordable – ten to one hundred times cheaper than the standard tests.

University Involvement

Local universities have made an intellectual and financial investment in this hot technology as well. MIT, Harvard, UMass Amherst and Northeastern all have dedicated nanotechnology research facilities. MIT has plans for a $350 million dollar state-of-the art research facility – called MIT.Nano – to be opened in 2018 and used by two thousand researchers.

In yet another Boston variation of nanotechnology – our final feature of the day – Shawn Douglas and Ido Bachelet of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University have developed barrel-shaped DNA nanobots, which target and bind to leukemia and lymphoma cells. When the nanobots find and lock into their target, the “barrel” swings open to release its payload – the molecular signals to flip the “suicide switch” – causing apoptosis (cell death) in the leukemia and lymphoma cells. This switch is a normal feature of cells that rids the body of aging or damaged cells. So in essence, the nanobot is emulating the body’s own immune system, in which white blood cells can bind to damaged cells and signal their “suicide switch.” This barrel design can potentially hold other types of payloads and thus has broader diagnostic and therapeutic applications. See the below video from the Wyss Institute for a detailed description:

These are only a few pieces of the huge nanotechnology puzzle in the greater Boston area, where researchers are working on a variety of technologies that could change the way we diagnose diseases and deliver drugs. “Nanotechnology is predicted to be a $3.1 trillion technology in the next five years,” says Dr. Goel. Stay tuned for more on nanotechnology in the next few months.

Dana Barberio

Dana Barberio

    Dana Barberio is a scientist with 17 years of experience in leading research in the pharmaceutical/biotech industry and in developing diagnostic tests for a clinical laboratory. Her background is in a variety of disciplines: genomics, proteomics, systems biology and bioinformatics. Currently, she's the director of Heartsong Youth Mentoring and is on the Board of Directors for a non-profit organization, Faith Seeds Ministries. She has an MS in Microbiology from the University of Connecticut.

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