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Small Wonders: Micro-Machines in Medicine

WebMD Feature

Nov 10, 2000 -- In the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, a surgical team is miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a dying man in a daring attempt to save his life. But that's doing it the hard way: why get small when you can make an army of microscopic robot paramedics that will do it for you?


A few years ago that would have sounded like an absurd fantasy, something out of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. But nanotechnology -- the science of coaxing or manipulating atoms to assemble themselves into microscopic machines or stable structures -- holds the promise of a new Industrial Revolution.


In the 19th century, the tools of progress were coal, oil, and steel. In the 21st century, they will be atoms, microscopic tubes carrying drugs, and miniature disease-fighting robots, say small-thinking scientists with big ideas, who met last week in Bethesda, Md. at a conference on nanotechnology.


The prefix nano-, from the Greek word for "dwarf" is used in medicine and science to denote things that are vanishingly small -- technically 1-billionth of a 'whatever'. So, a nanosecond is a billionth of a second, and a nanometer is a billionth of meter.


The idea of making molecule-sized machines may seem bizarre or silly to some people, but nanotechnology scientists are actually holding the mirror up to nature.


In some ways, Mother Nature is proof of nanotechnology, says conference co-chair Jan H. Hoh, PhD, associate professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. "People ask 'can you really build devices on a length scale of a few nanometers?' And the answer is, 'We know you can, because nature already has,' Hoh tells WebMD. "Part of current efforts at nanotechnology are these lessons-from-nature kinds of projects, where you try to understand the design strategies and principles nature uses, and then ask yourself 'how can I exploit these strategies to build devices with entirely new functions and new properties?'"


Nanotechnology embraces many branches of science and technology, from space exploration, to energy conservation. One area of particularly bright promise is in medicine. Imagine, if you can, what nanorobots or "nanobots" -- minuscule, single-minded automatons designed for a specific purpose -- may be able to do:


  • Manufacture and deliver cancer drugs to specific places within a tumor
  • Scour blood vessels clean of fatty deposits that block flow to the heart
  • Bombard isolated pockets of infection with a barrage of antibiotics
  • Search for and destroy blood clots that could lead to a heart attack or stroke


"All the machinery of life is molecularly precise machinery that works on a nanometer scale, so it is nanotechnology -- nature's version of it," says Rick Smalley, professor of chemistry and physics and director of the Center for Nanoscale Science & Technology at Rice University in Houston. "So to the extent we're going to ever learn how to diagnose it, to probe it, to figure it out, to alter it and fix its problems, that too will have to be a nanotechnology."

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