NEW ORLEANS, March 27 (UPI) -- The big little science known as nanotechnology could improve medical diagnostics vastly within the next two or three years, researchers said Thursday.
Many people think of nanotechnology -- the process of altering or building materials a molecule at a time -- as a way to build microscopic machines. In medicine, it means making tiny particles using either organic or inorganic materials.
If the different kinds of nanotechnology were in a race, biomedicine would be in the lead, said Shuming Nie, director of cancer nanotechnology at Emory University's Winship Cancer Institute, Atlanta.
"The most likely applications will be in biomedicine, not electronics," Nie told United Press International. In computing and electronics, researchers have yet to figure out how to wire particles together, he said, adding that with biotechnology, no wires are involved, just molecules.
Within biomedical nanotechnology, diagnostics will come of age the quickest.
"In two to three years, we should have something in the clinic," Nie said.
For example, researchers are developing diagnostic tests for cancer and cardiovascular diseases. When a person is sick, markers -- genetic material or proteins -- for the disease appear in body fluids. If blood or urine samples from the sick person are mixed with a solution of synthetic nanostructures, they can be designed to emit light in the presence of specific disease markers, Nie explained.
This kind of test would improve the accuracy of current tests -- which Nie said average about 50 percent -- dramatically. Diagnostics now have the capability to look only for one marker at a time, while new tests based on nanotechnology could detect multiple markers at once, he added.
Further down the road, Nie expects nanotech treatments to follow their diagnostic partners.
"An interesting direction will be to combine diagnostics with treatment," Nie said. "Treatment will come later because it requires regulations. It might take five to seven years."
The wait and investment could be worth it, however. Nie said he envisions "smart bomb" treatment of cancer. A nanostructure could recognize a cancer cell, bind to it and trigger a release of a therapeutic drug, he explained.
So far, though, there have not been any breakthroughs, he said.
"The field is progressing incredibly fast," said Jorge Barrio, professor of molecular medical pharmacology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Nanotechnology in its many dimensions will be important in medicine."
Barrio's team is working on diagnostic tests for Alzheimer's disease. They are developing non-invasive, in vivo (inside the body) probes to detect brain plaques associated with the disease.
He said the key to medical advancements is in understanding nanostructures and how to prevent their formation, as in the case of Alzheimer's plaques. "It's not only intriguing -- it's very relevant," Barrio said. "Everybody knows a parent or relative who has Alzheimer's."
Early diagnosis should be tied to hope, Barrio commented. Currently there is no treatment for Alzheimer's. However, he said developing diagnostics based on molecular understanding of the disease also could lead to treatment possibilities.
(Reported by Christine Suh, UPI Science News, in Washington)