By: Annie Hu
Nanobiotechnology is a groundbreaking field that combines practices from several branches of science to develop novel ideas, methods, and devices. To understand what nanobiotechnology is, it’s best to first look at its components as nanobiotechnology is the result of merging the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology.
Nanotechnology as a field deals with materials at the nanometer scale (the unit of measure translating to 10^9 x 1 meter). These nanomaterials are chemically and physically designed to respond to outside stimuli in specific ways, which produce materials with different functionalities that can be applied to research or industry. In simple terms, nanotechnology is structural engineering at a very, very small scale. The advantage of working on this small scale is the ability to observe processes that occur at a level smaller than molecules and to integrate novel technology. Working at this level, these devices can interact more effectively with subcellular levels of the body, improving therapeutic efficacy.
Nanotechnology has many fascinating applications and opens interesting new doors in the life sciences. At this new smaller-than-molecular level of understanding, biomedical tools can reach a whole new level of “advanced” and operate on the same scale as many important biological processes. Nanotechnology has already integrated itself into biology in the creation of new devices and techniques. Novel molecular imaging techniques integrate nanotechnology to detect disease earlier and more effectively. Prostheses, implants, and regenerative medicine (the branch of medicine dealing with developing methods to regrow or replace damaged cells and tissue) are also among the beneficiaries of the ability to engineer materials in a high level of detail, as most biological systems are nanosized. Biological interactions can be overserved at the level of their inorganic and organic nanoparticles to advance research into disease treatment.
Nanobiotechnology has begun to be explored in medical applications, with some technologies already being tested in clinical trials. One field that nanotechnology is expanding and improving is medical diagnostics. Currently, technologies like PCR (polymerase chain reaction) are used to detect genetic diseases by allowing for the analysis of specific segments of DNA. These technologies have led to important devices and tools, but nanobiotechnology is now providing novel and potentially more effective ways to advance conventional methods of disease detection. One example is the use of quantum dots, nanoscale probes more hardy than the traditional dyes used to detect binding antibodies and sites of disease and infection. They can survive more light emissions coming from the use of fluorescence or electronic microscopy, making them extremely useful for clinical tests. These quantum dots (QDs) are used in novel imaging techniques as well. Target molecules are labeled with these nanoparticles, and by the use of fluorescent proteins, intracellular visualization may be accomplished more easily through the direct observation of the processes occurring. QDs have a more tunable emission spectrum and stability under light than traditional fluorescent proteins used in biological imaging. The use of QDs could significantly advance the quality of image data and subsequent analysis.
Besides detection, nanobiotechnology opens new doors in medical treatments. Specifically, nanobiotech is applied in drug discovery and delivery, gene therapies, and tissue and implant engineering. Because of their small size, the nanoparticles can reach more specific locations than normal drugs, and therapies attached to nanoparticles can be guided to specific sites via radio and magnetic signals. The use of these smaller doses of therapeutics with a controlled release diminishes harmful side effects that normally accompany regular drugs. Nanoparticles also help prolong drug bioadhesion (ability for the therapy to stick to biological surfaces they must treat), and how long the drug is effective for. Gene therapy also benefits from the use of nanosized technologies. Viral vectors traditionally used in gene delivery have a possibility of inducing an immune response, causing issues with therapeutic delivery to cells. Using nanosized gene carriers in place of viral vectors is better for this type of gene delivery. Liposomes, small artificial vesicles created from cholesterol and natural phospholipids, can pass through target cell membranes and are being explored for drug delivery and targeted therapy.
Using nanomaterials in tissue and explant engineering have also been extremely beneficial. For example, in orthopaedics (the branch of medicine that deals with bone and muscle health), implants are used to replace defective bones or joints. Nanomaterials can be used to help lay calcium and other bone materials down onto the implant, making it more functional. These nanomaterials may improve the attachment of a joint or bone replacement to surrounding bone since the implant more closely resembles bone and its constituents. Thus the body is more likely to incorporate and accept the implant.
Nanomaterials also offer a better mechanistic contact between the bone cells and the implant. For example, titanium and its alloys seem to be very compatible with osteogenic cells. They can resist corrosion and have less surface reactivity among other factors. However, like all materials, titanium has its drawbacks, and the bone-implant interface may face issues in the osseointegration process (the process of creating a functional connection between implant and bone). To prevent this, the titanium implant’s surface must be adjusted to create an effective attachment. Nanotechnology can alter an implant’s surface to an incredible level of detail, and is being explored to create better suited orthopedic implants out of favorable materials like titanium.
Clinical tests, diagnostics, and therapeutic treatments are all experiencing the growing use of nanobiotechnology to improve what we already have, and create new devices with a level of advancement never paralleled before. This field certainly has much to be excited about!
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What Did You Learn?
1. What is nanobiotechnology currently being used for?
Nanobiotechnology is currently being explored in biomedical research. So far, these new technologies have been key to improving medical diagnostics, targeted drug delivery, and tissue engineering. For example, the use of quantum dots provides a more durable way to detect diseases, and has been important for improving imaging and intracellular visualization techniques. Nanoparticles also help to improve specificity in drug delivery and diminish the risk of side effects. Nanosized carriers of gene therapies also provide an alternative to the contested viral vectors in use currently. Nanoengineering and materials are also used in orthopaedic implants to improve the functional integration of a joint or bone replacement (osseointegration).
2. Why is it crucial to design biomedical technologies at a nanometer scale?
At the nanometer level, treatments and diagnosis can increase in their level of specificity, as the level of detail in therapies and diagnostics improves from being able to integrate smaller and smaller particles into novel technologies. Efficacy improves from the nanoparticles' ability to interact with subcellular levels of the body. Drug delivery is improved with the ability to reach locations the normal treatments would not be able to. Since many systems of the body are nanosized, this is extremely useful.