June 29, 2011
By: by Brian Buntz
Some of the most optimistic predictions about how developments in nanotechnology will affect our lives sound a bit far-fetched. For example, famed futurist Ray Kurzweil expects that, by mid-century, we'll have nanomachines travelling through our bodies, repairing cells and wiping out diseases. By 2040 or 2050, he believes, nanotech will make it possible for us to be immortal.
Sara Brenner, MD, MPH, shown on the left, works on research with Umaru Barrie, a premed student, in one of CNSE's NanoBio Laboratories.
However, there is some question as to whether researchers will be able to develop nanomachines at all in the coming decades. "It depends on what you mean by nanomachines," says Sara Brenner, MD, MPH, the assistant vice president for NanoHealth Initiatives and assistant professor of nanobioscience at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE), part of the University at Albany in New York. "Nanoscale systems with motors are hypothetical ideas at this point," she says. "I don't know if we'll see those in our lifetime."
But other types of nanotechnology are already becoming a reality. CNSE is currently developing a range of nanomaterials and nanodevices. The faculty is working on nanospun fibers and 3-D matrices, which could be precursors to artificial cells and organs, Brenner says. Antibiofouling surfaces in the works could be used in both temporary and permanent medical devices, such as catheters and implants. IBM, a key tenant in the industrial-academic facility where Brenner works, is also developing nanoscale electronics. Some of those components were used in Watson, the computer that recently beat its human competitors on the television game show Jeopardy!
Watson's win may be a harbinger of the advance to come in artificial intelligence. "Whether we call it intelligence or not, there's absolutely no arguing that the pace of innovation in this area is accelerating," Brenner says. "And to the extent that humans learn to design and use those systems, that's where we are really going to start to see magnificent breakthroughs."
But Brenner says we will likely see ex vivo tools and diagnostics, such as the lab-on-a-chip, before in vivo diagnostics and treatment modalities such as implantable biomaterials, drugs, artificial tissues, and organs.
"Product development at this point is staggered, so we will see products working their way to the market anywhere from now through the next several decades and beyond," she says. "How quickly certain products progress does depend on regulatory, health and safety, economic, and other factors-perhaps on the order of 5-10 years."
Applications such as antibiofouling surfaces may be introduced in different ways at different times. For example, nanotechnology that could help prevent the spread of hospital-acquired infections by making surfaces such as keyboards, door knobs, and table tops more resistant to bacterial adhesion could become mainstream in a few years, Brenner says. On the other hand, nanotech surfaces on implantable structures, such as artificial hip joints and heart valves, will likely take longer to develop. Brenner explains that "this is partly because there is likely less risk associated with new materials being used outside of the body than inside the body, and therefore a shorter and less expensive runway to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of such applications," she says. "Nanotechnology is already making its presence felt in reshaping traditional diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease, and it is all but certain to have a profound effect on healthcare in years to come."