The superhero science of tomorrow

Nanotechnology promises to change the world by changing the way we design and create. If this stuff doesn’t make you jump up and down and go ooh and aah you’re brain dead. (Kenton)

The next generation’s superhero is already here and surprisingly it’s not yet another flying man flaunting his underwear over a jumpsuit. Although incapable of soaring into skies and jumping off buildings, it can still save lives and take on menaces like bad hair days and malignant neoplasm. It’s named nanotechnology – the science of nano-sized particles.

The Nanotech-lifestyle

This relatively new wonder science is capable of materializing products that have so far existed only in our imaginations, such as color therapy lamps to help brighten your girl’s mood or if you belong to the fairer sex, nanotech can make you ditch your usual birth control methods and instead opt for stamp-sized, waterproof birth control patches that stick anywhere on the body and deliver hormones found in regular birth control pills. Other drool worthy inventions include a Braille Glove, that translates hand movements into text; an engine-less, pollutant free car by General Motors; a Solar Tower to make every environmentalist blush with pleasure; and tomato vaccines – genetically modified tomatoes that DON’T hurt and help boost our immune system against specific diseases. As for the tech-savvy, fret not as nanotechnology offers you phone tooth that operates while embedded in a molar; and a virtual keyboard to go along with your groovy gadgets.

Nanomaterials behave differently

What makes nanotechnology tick? The answer lies in size. Nanoscience deals with materials within the size range of a 100 nm. To visualize the infinitesimal, picture one nanometer as hundred-thousandth the width of a single strand of human hair. Reducing materials to nano-size radically alters their looks and behavior, giving them a makeover. For instance opaque things become transparent (copper); solids turn into liquids at room temperature (gold); and color changes from charcoal to blue (silicon). Many factors govern these changes; one being that nanoparticles have a larger surface area than volume, meaning a larger outside than inside.

Nano Nano on the wall who’s the prettiest of all?

With these fascinating super powers it’s not surprising to find nanotechnology on every company’s to-do list, the cosmetics industry being no exception. Cosmetics giants like L’Oreal invest heavily in research efforts within nanotechnology to conjure better products to tackle bad hair days and stubborn wrinkles. These products give better and quicker results as their nanosized ingredients are absorbed deeper into the skin, e.g. zinc-oxide, a mineral based pigment used in sun blocks is white and greasy in its natural state but when reduced to nanosize it becomes almost transparent and is easily absorbed into the skin. Similarly, emulsifiers used to bind oil and water in products like conditioners and makeup yield a less oily mixture when broken down into nanosized particles.

Make-up by day, medicine by night

Using nanotechnology as a tool for developing cosmetics is helping us understand how nanomaterials interact with living cells, so the beauty potions of today can lead us to the medicines of tomorrow. One disease in desperate need of a nano-messiah is cancer, a class of diseases characterized by immortal cells. While immortality is a human fancy, our cells must die a scheduled death to ensure the right number of cells at all times. A hitch in this process can lead to lumps of cells, clinically called tumors that can spread and interfere with normal body functions.

Battling Cancer using Nanotechnology
Cancer accounts for 13% of global mortality, killing around 8 million of the 11 million diagnosed every year, while traditional treatment methods like chemotherapy still remain an obscure territory, causing more side-effects than a promised cure. Our superhero science can help to battle cancer far more competently. Novel nanodevices being designed will be capable of detecting cancer at its earliest stages, pinpointing its location within the body and delivering anticancer drugs solely to tumor cells. These devices outstrip the current tools due to their size and specificity. An average cell is around 20,000 nm in diameter, thus nanodevices up to 50 nm that are designed specifically to recognize and target cancer cells can easily enter and deliver anti-cancer drugs to tumors. This is done by coating them with antibodies that recognize cancer biomarkers – substances associated with a specific cancer, found in blood/urine etc.

Smuggling medicines into the body
Already such nanodevices are on their way towards clinical trials for treating cancer patients. A research group at Michigan University was successful in attaching an anti-cancer drug to one such nanodevice called a dendrimer and smuggled it into tumor cells, delaying the growth of tumors in mice by up to 30 days (equivalent of 3 years in humans). Another invention is snitch-like (Harry Potter ignorants can ignore the word SNITCH) minute beads called nanoshells, that target cancer cells only. Once inside tumor cells, they are heated up by applying easily penetrating infrared light over the body and the heat generated as a result kills the cancer cells. Another research team at Yale has used nanosensors to measure biomarkers specific to prostate and breast cancer in blood which will allow doctors to get instant readings by using small portable devices in their clinics, helping in early diagnosis of cancer.

Other research efforts are based on developing nanopores that can detect errors in our genetic material that lead to cancer, an imperative approach since most cancers have their origins in genetic abnormalities that can arise due to carcinogens like tobacco smoke, radiation, chemicals or are inherited at birth.

Lurking aspects
As the cliché saying from perhaps this generation’s most favorite superhero, Spiderman goes ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ hence it is now in our hands to use this power clad in nano know-how for the welfare of mankind and beware of the negative aspects that lurk around this technology.



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