Nanotechnology: Good things come in small packages

Konstantina Nadia Tzelepi discusses nanotechnology, the study of very small things at a nanoscale.

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Applications of nanotechnology in cancer

Nanotechnology is used in a range of science disciplines, from biology, chemistry to engineering, physics and material sciences. Its application in medicine constitutes an emerging field of research with great focus to be given on nanoparticles use for cancer treatment.

Nanotechnology offers a vital tool for researchers in cancer detection, diagnosis, prevention and therapy. Statistics for this disease show that at least 1 in 2 people in UK will develop it at some point and there is an unmet medical need for treatment. Engineers and scientists are taking advantage of the unique properties that materials at the nanoscale possess. Some of these properties can be briefly summarized into enhanced chemical reactivity and optical properties, light weight, high strength and stability.

Challenges in cancer therapy

Until recently, cancer therapies focused on chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. All of these methods carry the risk of damaging the healthy surrounding cells and tissues as well as the tumour area. Nanomaterials could overcome these problems and lead to increased efficacy of treatment. For example, nanoparticles are used for selectively targeting of chemotherapies to cancer tissues, increasing the therapeutic potential of radiation-based therapies.

How nanoparticles work?

The question lies on how these nanoparticles can provide the advantages described above. The answer is relatively simple. These nano-carriers either interact with the cell surface because of their charge and surface properties that make them accumulate into cancer cells that are characterized by leaky blood vessels and not into healthy cells or by “receptor-mediated” interaction of nanoparticles with the cell surface.

In the second approach, molecules that bind to specific receptors expressed by cancer cells are attached to a nanoparticle in order to provide recognition and subsequent internalization. Lastly, another method of cancer treatment coming from the nanoscience background is based on the destruction of the tumor micro-environment from within.

The key message to note is that nanotechnology does not represent a cure to cancer, but is a vital step towards the fight against this devastating disease; without doubt it constitutes a life-saving option to many patients so far, shedding a bit more light into the effectiveness of options available out there against cancer. For all of us in the science field, and for those not, let’s wait and observe the advancements that the emerging field of nanotechnology has to offer us every single day.

Konstantina Nadia Tzelepi is a PhD student at Open University collaborating with the pharmaceutical company Midatech Pharma on investigating the mechanism of gold nanoparticles toxicity in cancer cells. This article was originally published in April 2017 on OpenLearn. You should subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.

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