Nanoengineering molecular-size layers and individual cells – cancer included

This week, Newsweek reported another ‘breakthrough in the search for a cure for cancer.’

Getting patients’ hopes up only to see them overtaken by the speed of the disease or outright disavowal weeks or months or years later has become the central disheartening reality of oncology. And while proof of concept is now in hand for an ingenious new approach, its potential for medical treatment may or may not have its greatest potential in the cure for cancer. But it holds immense promise in many more ways than this.

Cylindrical nanotubes made of graphene, ingested through a pill or intravenous access, enter the blood stream where they are “programmed” to bind to cancer cells, and cancer cells ONLY – even microscopic ones not otherwise detectable and therefore treatable. Heated by radio waves, they literally “burn” cancer cells away, leaving healthy tissue intact.  2,000 such nanotubes can be made to fit into a single erythrocyte, or red blood cell. The invention is now going into human trials, with breathtaking promise.

What matters most is not any single application but the concept of engineering tissues, structures and layers at the nanolevel. Another leading cause of death in humans is coronary heart disease – which, in reality, is neither limited to coronary arteries nor to the heart but affects the entire vascular system in all organs to a greater or lesser extent. Being able to strip away layer by layer the plaque that lines our vessels could not only add considerable length to life but also to its quality.

And the range of applications goes on. Medicine is replete with known causalities for which we lack the infinitesimally fine and subtle tools to manipulate individual cells and organs in the body. Nanotechnology provides those tools in principle, through a variety of manipulation and control techniques that, for the patient, do not necessarily feel all that much like space-age science. But they are.

At the same time, at least given the cost of present-day manufacture, manipulation, and imaging, nanotechnology is sure to boost another quantum leap in the explosion of health care cost. Still, that was also the thought at the cradle of the computer revolution when IBM president Thomas J. Watson reputedly said in the early 1940s, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” Right. Elementary, Watson.


Storage media: When digital research goes biotech

Justifications with national security interests notwithstanding, a heretofore unimagined extent of data storage is here to stay. This has a variety of reasons that are perhaps best generally characterized as archival and entirely independent of eventual use. Moral, ethical and legal reflections on the subject may be important but they will not stop disruptive new technologies for data collection, data storage, or data processing any more than religious beliefs have ever stalled science for significant periods.

Capacitive revolutions in storage are coming in more ways than one. Besides data storage, but likely with considerable practical cross-fertilization and synergies, geometrical progress is being made in energy storage and battery technology, which are also likely to remove by a reasonably short horizon the last comparative practical and cost advantages of the combustion engine based on fossil fuels. 

In the December 2014 issue of this blog I discussed computational simulation experiments in silico and the example of test cases in “executable biology” under the title “When biotech research goes digital.” But there is also the reverse phenomenon – when digital technology reaches the limits of anorganic storage media, some promising lines of research have “gone biotech” and unearthed surprising potential in the use of DNA. If expectations are sustainable, DNA would also represent a major quantum leap in ensuring continuation of Moore’s Law in the evolution of storage media. While the initial media hoopla about this concept dates back to 2013 and has not been followed up with significant updates since, some more modest but more immediately practical solutions were advertised with proof of concept even somewhat earlier – but are also still pending. I write about it today with some benefit of hindsight and reflection, but also in anticipation of practical solutions essential to commercialization that remain rather far ahead. In truly visionary ideas it is the concept, not its realization, that represents the fundamental breakthrough. Warp drives, as we remember, emerged in science fiction but did inspired real physics as well as R&D.

DNA presents an extremely durable form of information storage. It may be extracted after tens of thousands of years from the bones of mammals found in permafrost, not to mention from human mummies. It does not require electricity and only the barest minimum of physical storage space.