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.

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