Extending Medical Nanotech

A couple weeks ago, Calvin Johnson wrote an interesting post on nanotechnology, discussing some of the proposals, current research, and ways to write about it in a more realistic manner. One application he didn’t touch on, however, was the current work being done in nanomedicine.

Most current medical nanotech takes the form of either microscopic drug vectors tuned to open for certain wavelengths of light, or particles designed to identify cancers by infiltrating cells or locking onto certain proteins. These particles are largely organic and often designed to mimic the actions of antibodies. All these methods are being touted as ways to combat not only cancer and infections, but have also been used to repair tissue damage following heart transplants.

The nanotech being employed against cancers is perhaps the most creative. There are nanoparticles designed to mark cancer cells for their aggressiveness or for their type. There are also “cooperative” particles, one type indicating which cells the other should offload its drugs on. Scientists have designed nanoparticles that, once implanted in a cell, can essentially be detonated, and others that attach to cell walls to shake the cells until they die.

I can see these applications for nanotech progressing rapidly, to the point where—ten, twenty, fifty years from now—we’ll be able to diagnose and zap any cancer and any infection as soon as it appears. Along with immunizations, children could be injected with nanoparticles designed to remain in the blood stream and release drugs on a signal, whether from antibodies or their fellow particles. We’d be able to treat neurological disorders more efficiently with nanotech sensitive to minute changes in neurotransmitter levels. Vectors carrying small amounts of botulin could be “programmed” to seek out the first traces of wrinkles; others could eliminate fatty tissue or cellulite, maybe even gray hair or baldness. We might even be able to build proteins that edit DNA for hereditary diseases, genetic abnormalities such as Down Syndrome, and eye color (because some applications will be shallow). We’re already partway there with particles that deliver a kind of RNA to deactivate a cancer gene.

It’s not that hard to extrapolate from disease-identifying proteins to proteins or other synthetic particles designed to give us a more detailed view of cells, DNA, and the workings of the body. If we could track every minute step in the manufacture of a protein, from the DNA itself to the protein’s use in the body, would we be able to identify the roles of certain genes faster? If we could swap one nucleotide for another in a cell in a lab, what could we learn from how that changes the gene? Could we create synthetic ribosomes or other cellular components? Could we use those to build cells of our own and start a whole new kind of life? Could we cure or at least delay autoimmune diseases?

Of course, as with any other technology, there are also downsides to anything coming out of current nanomedicine. Recreational drugs could be delivered the same way as medicinal ones, for a harder or faster hit, and neurotransmitters could become the next wave of addictions. Eugenics could make a comeback. An externally activated delivery system could be used to poison, overdose, or control huge numbers of people at the same time. Love potions. Athlete doping. Murders going undetected because they look exactly like heart failure or the weapon mimics antibodies when tested. Violent protests against tinkering with our genome or creating our own kinds of humans. Violent protests by our creations.

And at what point does it stop being nanotechnology and become something else? At what point will we become so used to having man-made particles in our bodies that we’re unable to function without them? What happens when they reach their best-before date or encounter a toxin that destroys them, possibly violently? How are bacteria and viruses going to evolve to fight back against our newest weapon? Is there something worse than cancer that hasn’t been discovered yet or could be catalyzed by heavy usage of nanotech?

Nanomedicine’s going to change the world. That’s guaranteed. But how much better off we’ll really be, and how we’re going to combat the inevitable problems, are matters for debate and study—and writers of science fiction.

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