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Small Wonders: Micro-Machines in Medicine



  • 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."


Smalley tells WebMD that nanotechnology is already used in medicine in the form of man-made molecules that are coupled with toxic chemicals or radioactive particles. These molecules, which do not exist in nature, can deliver drugs or lethal doses of radiation to cancerous tumors, for example. From there, it's not much of a leap, he says, to imagine drug delivery using micromanufactured tubes, so-called nanotubes.


In testimony before Congress in 1999, Smalley forecast other uses for nanotechnology in medicine. They include rapid genetic analysis that would allow diagnosis and treatment customized to fit an individual patient based on his or her genetic profiles; more durable artificial organs that would be less likely to be rejected by the recipient's immune system; and "sensing systems, which will allow the detection of emerging disease in the living body, and will ultimately shift the focus of patient care from disease treatment to early detection and/or prevention," he says.


Other medical applications of nanotechnology that at first seem to be far out in left field are in fact coming pretty close to home, says Leslie Rubinstein, president of Renaissance Technologies in Lexington, Ky. In an interview with WebMD, he describes the use of practical nanorobots for treatment of various medical problems. The minimedic machines could be built using existing technology -- such as that used to make tiny computer chips. The robots themselves would be designed to boldly go where no robot has gone before -- that is, into areas of the body that are hard to reach -- and where the goal is to get rid of something that shouldn't be there.

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