In this interactive slideshow adapted from NOVA scienceNOW, learn how scientists are using nanotechnology—the building of functional systems at the molecular scale—for medical purposes. Through a mix of electron microscope images, artistic representations, and informative text, examine a variety of nanotechnology applications that have been conceived to diagnose, treat, and even prevent cancer. The slideshow features nanotubes, nanowires, quantum dots, and fullerenes, among several other extremely small devices and particles currently in research and development.
The prefix nano- is derived from the Greek word that means “dwarf.” When applied to size, nano denotes a tiny unit of measure—on the scale of billionths. Thus, nanotechnology can be defined as extremely small technology. Nanotechnology devices range in size from 1 nanometer (nm)—the width of three to five atoms depending on the type of element—to 100 nm. All devices in the nanoscale require a specialized microscope to be seen.
Applications of nanotechnology stretch across many industry sectors, including energy, computer science, and transportation. The ability to manipulate atoms to construct nano–sized devices also has enormous potential to change medicine. Cancer is a key focus of medical nanotechnology research. A number of different applications are currently being developed that might one day transform cancer diagnosis, treatment, and even prevention.
For example, most harmful side effects of conventional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, result from nontargeted delivery. This means that healthy cells are killed along with diseased cells. Nanoparticles and devices have the potential to deliver highly targeted treatment. Because of their small size, they can interact with cells in ways that larger objects cannot, binding directly to the surface of cells and gaining access to the inside of those cells. One targeting strategy involves attaching an RNA strand to a nanoparticle that contains a drug molecule inside it. The RNA, which is attracted to specific proteins on cancer cells, then binds with the target cells and the drug is released into them.
Nanotechnology applications are being developed in other areas of medicine besides cancer. One model involves using programmable nanorobots. These may prove capable of slowing the aging process by making repairs at the cellular level, performing surgeries far more precisely than a human doctor could, or even attacking viruses and rendering them harmless. To allay concerns over the safety of nanotechnology for medical purposes, nanoengineers must very carefully and thoroughly test substances at the nanoscale and understand their properties before releasing any applications.
Academic standards correlations on Teachers' Domain use the Achievement Standards Network (ASN) database of state and national standards, provided to NSDL projects courtesy of JES & Co.
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