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.