The field of “nanotechnology” is extremely broad, as is its subset, “nanomedicine”, particularly since the field is defined only by the physical size on which it operates or has its effects rather than any specific technology type employed. Therefore, in principle, the opportunities for nanotechnology in medicine are huge (see link), but in actuality the realizable markets are driven by the specific technologies under development and the size (e.g., caseload) of the associated applications.
An intriguing application emerging from Northwestern University, under the direction of Nader Jalili, an associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, is nano-surgery (see link). (Although a more accurate term would be nanodiagnostics or nano-drug-delivery, since “surgery” other than biopsy is not part of the equation yet.)
The Northwestern research by Jalili, supported in part by a five-year, $400,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, is directed toward the use of “nanorobots” that can, for example, provide precise location of cancerous tumors for diagnostics or drug-delivery purposes:
“Nanorobots are made up of sensors and actuators derived from special nanomaterials, such as synthetic zinc oxide, quartz and gold, which have unique features in the nanoscale.
Applying mechanical force to these nanomaterials produces electrical energy, turning some into sensors that track motion, movement and direction, and others into actuators that convert electrical energy into mechanical motion, to move parts such as a nanorobot’s gripper.”
A fundamental limitation of most medical and surgical procedures is its tendency toward its “collateral damage” – for example, the need to use high dosages of systemically-delivered drugs to achieve adequate levels at the target location but that results in toxicity to healthy tissues, or the technical challenge of surgical instrumentation that targets disease tissue with minimal invasiveness. Technologies such as the nanorobots at Northwestern fit into the future demand curve with precision and tissue-specific targeting that systemic drugs or current, less invasive surgery are unable to provide. Eventually, direct excision, manipulation or other treatment of localized tissue, rather than only drug delivery or biopsy, will become possible, justifying the term, “nano-surgery”.