For most of us, the only time we think about the term “nano” is when we’re debating which size of iPod to buy. But for researchers at the University of Utah’s Nano Institute of Utah, the term represents nearly limitless potential, whether it’s preventing cancer, helping blind eyes to see or supporting ever-smaller electronic chips.
Nanotechnology—or nanotech as scientists call it—is the study of the controlling of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. The prefix “nano” means billionth, making a nanometer one billionth of a meter. To put that size into perspective, one sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
The Nano Institute focuses on research, education and commercialization in nanotechnology areas including nanomedicine, biosensors, integration and reliability, and wireless nanosystems. The institute and its partner, the state-funded Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative, are banking on the fact that research and discovery at such a small level can yield big scientific and economic results.
“The University of Utah, and the state through USTAR, is making a big push to take advantage of breakthroughs at the university and use them as a way to drive the state’s economy through startup companies and technology transfer,” says Marc Porter, director of the Nano Institute. “The idea is that we involve companies and work on commercializing [these breakthroughs] and get them into the marketplace.”
Early Disease Detection
Porter, who has founded several commercial nano-based companies, certainly understands the economical benefits of his research. The value of his team’s research, however, goes far beyond dollar and cents. The team uses nanotechnology biosensors is to detect changes in biological systems at ultra-low levels of concentration, which can lead to early disease detection.
By using an optical technique called surface enhanced Raman scattering, Porter’s team is creating platforms that can detect disease markers in serum, urine or saliva. “The earlier you can detect a change in a protein [or other disease marker],” he says, “The earlier you can begin treatment and have a positive outcome.”
In cases where the disease markers are already known, such as in herpes, researchers work to develop tests that can be performed rapidly, reliably and at a low cost. Porter and his team also focus on marker discovery and validation for diseases with unknown markers, including pancreatic cancer.
“We’re moving pretty aggressively,” Porter says of his team’s progress. “We’re hoping that some of the things we’re doing will be in the market place in the next three to five years.”
Nano products wouldn’t reach the market, however, without plenty of collaboration. After disease markers are identified, drugs are created and pharmacologists determine how they will function in the body.
At that point, another Nano Institute director, Hamid Ghandehari, and his nanomedicine team step in to find new ways to deliver these drugs to the affected areas in the body.
“In [Porter’s team’s] case, it’s a reconnaissance effort,” explains Ghandehari. “In our case, it’s ‘How do we solve the problem now—how do we target drugs to specific sites in the body?’ If a patient has an infectious disease, you want to treat the infection; you don’t want the drug to go to other parts of the body. Anti-cancer drugs kill cancer cells fabulously; the problem is that they also cause side effects to the other cells.”
Those side effects—including nausea, bone marrow suppression and even hair loss—can prevent cancer patients from taking their medication in the necessary dosage. Ghandehari’s group is using nanotechnology to find ways to get the drugs not only directly to cancer cells but into specific compartments within those cells.
“This the dawning era of nanotherapeutics,” Ghandehari says. “There are clinical trials from other labs that are testing these concepts. In fact, the first polymer therapeutics is on the verge of being approved by the FDA. [Similarly], researchers from the University of Utah are not too far from taking these systems to clinical trials.”
After clinical trials and regulatory approval, the Nano Institute and USTAR work with investors or businesses that are interested in taking the drug or delivery system to market.
“We may have great ideas that work beautifully in patients, but generally academics are not so good at commercialization,” Ghandehari admits. “You need to get together with CEOs or entrepreneurs to find the money and find a niche to develop these things.”
The Learning Curve
Along with advances in nanotechnology comes the concern that it could be misused. Opponents of nanotechnology worry that the field could cause problems ranging from environmental damage to biological warfare.
“With any new technology, it’s important to be prudent and look at both the positive—how it is going to improve life, and the negative—what we need to be worried about,” Porter says.
As progress in the field continues, government and regulatory scrutiny will certainly increase. Porter, however, feels confident that policy makers and the general public will come to understand the intrinsic value of the science.
“These length-of-scale materials have been around forever—silver as a colloidal material was used by the Romans to sterilize water. This stuff has been around a long time and it hasn’t wiped us out. That’s not to say that we don’t need to be prudent and very careful.
“Think of airplanes,” he adds. “People used to be scared of them and now everyone uses them. [Nanotechnology] has the same kind of learning curve.”