Cancer has been the great killer of our time. While the advance of medical science has made many cancers treatable, the diagnosis of cancer can still often mean a death sentence. But thanks to a new science known as nanotechnology, this may no longer be the case in the not so distant future.
During a visit to the doctor, you get the bad news. Various tests that have
been performed on you have uncovered the fact that you have a cancer. It is a
very aggressive, malignant form of cancer. The doctor gives you your options,
which include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. He gives you your chances
of survival, which are not good. Nevertheless, you submit to a treatment
regime, which involves side effects such as nausea and pain. The progress of
your cancer is slowed, but not stopped. Within a few short months of agony and
rapidly deteriorating heath, you are dead.
Now imagine another visit to the doctor. He gives you the same bad news.
However, he is able to give you an injection right there in the office. During
a follow up visit about two weeks later, tests indicate that your cancer has
been totally eradicated. You have many years of happy, productive life ahead of
How is the second scenario possible?
The answer lays in a new science known as nanotechnology.
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology concerns the development of machines and other devices on the
molecular level. The term was developed to describe the vision of physicist Dr.
Richard Feynman’s vision of using nanomachines, defined as having features less
than a hundred nanometers across, to manufacture products, including other
nanomachines. This idea was further developed by Dr. K. Eric Dexler in his book
Engines of Creation. It would allow the manufacture of products with atomic
precision, with superior materials and at much lower cost.
Nanotechnology has grown to be descriptive of other applications as well,
including chemistry, materials science, microelectronics, and biotechnology.
Some of the hoped for products that will come out of nanotechnology research
include home computers with billions of processors, super strong, super light
materials, such as carbon nanotubes, high power, high density motors and
generators, and better techniques for destroying pathogens and cancer cells.
Nanotechnology and Cancer
Most animal cells are about ten thousand to twenty thousand nanometers in
diameter. Therefore, it would be easy for nanodevices to enter and interact
with the cells DNA and proteins.
Nanotechnology can be used to fight cancer in two ways. First, it will be
used in detecting the presence of cancer far earlier and with greater precision
than with standard diagnostic methods, such as x-rays, MRIs, and biopsies.
Second, it will be used in the destruction of the cancer, with greater
precision and thoroughness, once it is detected.
It is practically a cliché in medicine that early detection of cancer
translates into a greater probability of treating the cancer successfully.
There are several nanotechnology tools being developed that could detect cancer
when it is still at the molecular level. Some nanodevices are being developed
that could detect alterations of a cell’s DNA that is a precursor to the
development of cancer tumors. Other nanodevices are being developed that would
have the capability to bind to cancer cells and not normal cells, thus making
detection easier. Still other nanodevices could detect cancer “biomarkers” in a
sample of human blood far earlier than current tests allow. The advantages of
these methods are that they can detect cancer early, without exploratory
surgery, and without physically altering the cells being examined.
Nanotechnology’s greatest promise in medicine is its potential to destroy
cancers that until now have been resistant to conventional treatments.
Modern chemotherapy and radiation can be best described as carpet bombing
cancer. That means that healthy cells are attacked along with the cancer cells.
The result is that the patient suffers serious side effects, including nausea,
hair loss, anemia, and the degradation of his or her immune system. The lack of
precision inherent in modern cancer fighting techniques sometimes means that
not all of a cancer is eradicated, resulting in a resurgence of the cancer.
Nanotechnology provides the potential of a cancer fighting smart bomb.
Nanodevices can be built that can precisely deliver drugs to the cancer cells,
leaving healthy cells untouched. These devices would enter the previously detected
cancer cells and deliver the drug or combination of drugs, destroying the
cancer from within.
Another potential technique combines nanotechnology with a new form of
radiation therapy. Carbon nanotubes are introduced into cancer cells. Then an
infrared laser is focused on the affected area. The laser heats the nanotubes,
causing the destruction of the cancer cells, leaving healthy cells untouched.
Another technique imagined for treating cancer would involve nanocomputers
literally rewriting the DNA of cancer cells to turn them back into normal
cells. The idea would be that these devices would examine the DNA of cancer
cells on the atomic level, comparing them to what the DNA of normal cells for
the patient should be, and then calling in nanorepair devices to fix the DNA.
How Soon Will These Techniques Be Available?
Forecasting when a technology, especially a medical technology, will be
available for use is not an exact science. The progress of medical research can
very often be agonizingly slow. Many blind alleys have to be explored before
even animal testing can be performed. And even techniques that show promise in
animal testing very often do not prove as useful once human trials begin. And
of course government bureaucracies such as the Food and Drug Administration
take a great deal of time to approve new drugs and medical techniques for
Nevertheless, some nanotechnology therapies are already available.
Liposomes, a first generation nanotechnology device, is being used to deliver
drugs to treat certain kinds of fungal infections as well as some kinds of
cancer. A team at MIT have managed to successfully kill cancer tumors in mice
using a nanodevice delivered drug. Another team at Stanford has used carbon
nanotubes to heat and destroy cancer cells.
In 2001, the National Cancer Institute suggested that nanodevices that could
detect cancers could be available in “five to fifteen years” and that similar
devices that could treat cancers would be available in about the same time
frame. Devices that can both detect and treat cancers could be available in
“fifteen to twenty years.”
That means that within the lifetimes of most people, cancer, that great
killer of our time, may no longer be fraught with the horrors we view it with
now. Our descendents might well view cancer as we view certain plagues of the
past, like small pox, as part of history and no longer as part of everyday life.