Cancer cells are incredibly flexible about promoting their own movement and growth in the body. They can travel through blood vessels as thin as spider silk. They even change their shape to do so, yet are still able to divide and cluster into colonies in those very skinny spaces. That spreading through the body is called metastasis, and it’s what makes cancer turn deadly.
Researchers are now putting nanotechnology to work to help decipher exactly how cancer cells perform this extraordinary feat. An article in Nanotechnology Now reports:
The researchers trapped live cancer cells in the tubular membranes and, with optical high- and super-resolution microscopy, could see how the cells adapted to the confined environment. Cell structures significantly changed in the nanomembranes, but it appeared that membrane blebbing — the formation of bulges — at the cells’ tips helped keep genetic material stable, an important requirement for healthy cell division.
“…polymeric nanoparticles, oral insulin admin-istration using polysaccharides and polymeric nanoparticles, inhalable insulin nanoparticle formulations, and insulin delivery using BioMEMS [biomedical (or biological) microelectromechanical systems]. In addition to ceramic and polymeric nanoparticles, studies on gold nanoparticles for insulin delivery and treatment of diabetes-associated symptoms are discussed.”
I had to look up “polymeric,” so I’ll share. Polymeric just means made out of polymers, which are already in everything from synthetic plastics (your kitchen storage stuff) and other things we use every day at work and at home, to natural biopolymers (like in RNA, DNA and amino acids) that are critical pieces of our biological selves.
And here’s one about nanosensors that could selectively measure glucose concentrations. Glucose would alter the current flowing down the conductive nanotubes. That data would then be fed to an embedded microchip which would send it wirelessly to a wearable computer. The technology’s not there yet, though. They’re still working on making these things compatible with staying inside the human body for long periods of time – not a small problem.
I’m excited to report news involving three of my favorite topics: nanotechnology, stem cells, and fixing hearts. Past efforts using stem cells to treat heart attacks and heart failure haven’t been very successful. And the worst part is, they don’t know why. Apparently they inject the stem cells into a patient but then don’t know where they end up. Do they stay in the targeted part of the heart or wander off somewhere else? If the treatment doesn’t work, up til now there’s been no way to determine why not. Now if only they could tell where the stem cells go and what they do…
Enter this new visualizing technique. Doctors at Stanford University School of Medicine have designed a way to use nanotechnology to track stem cells after they’ve been introduced into a patient’s body. The thought is that once they know where the stem cells have gone, they’ll be able to see more clearly what’s happening with them. The tracking technique, which also allows doctors to guide the stem cells more precisely to their intended location, involves marking the stem cells with nanoparticles and a gadolinium-laced contrast agent and following them with standard ultrasounds (Yay, non-invasive!) as they enter the body and move around. The hope is the docs’ll be able to see exactly where the stem cells take up residence and watch what they do. Do they stay in the targeted area or do they diffuse away from the heart? Do they develop into the desired cells or into something else entirely?
I know that gadolinium as a contrast agent ingredient is known to cause people who have kidney problems to develop a terrible and disfiguring disease known as Nephrogenic Systemic Fibrosis. It’s certainly good to hear that the substance can also be used in this new way to potentially help people with serious heart issues.
Unfortunately, this exciting discovery has at least three more years before it can be used in humans. But as with all life-limiting conditions, those of us who live with them are always looking for reasons to hope.
According to a report on Britain’s Daily Mail website, computer giant IBM announced the discovery of a radical new nano-gel that “attacks microbial biofilms” (bacteria groups that stick together in diseased cells and are present in 80% of all infections).
These bacterial biofilms are often resistant to antibiotics, which has allowed nature to develop super-resistant bacteria. IBM believes its new gel may eventually replace the use of antibiotics – and eventually lead to eliminating modern-day hospital superbugs.
Staphylococcus on catheter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Antibiotics continue to become less effective. And while bleach and alcohol still can kill germs on surfaces, they don’t often work well in applications involving human tissue.
IBM and The Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology teamed up to address these issues by developing this new synthetic hydrogel, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek. They say the gel is “the first-ever to be biodegradable, biocompatible and non-toxic” – and is exactly what’s needed to begin protecting hospital workers, visitors and patients from serious infection.
Considered a radically new hydrogel, this substance, when applied to contaminated surfaces, results in its “positive charge attract[ing] all negatively charged microbial membranes, like powerful gravitation into a black hole.”
But whereas “most antibiotics and hydrogels target the internal machinery of bacteria to prevent replication,” this gel kills by disrupting cell membranes (exploding cells) – a method that doesn’t allow the bacteria to develop resistance.
This sounds incredibly promising – another moment when human discoveries may save us from decreasing effectiveness of previous inventions. Having just read an article about how using anti-bacterial soaps sends more “stuff” out into the world that helps bacteria develop resistance, I’m especially excited to hear this method of fighting bacteria will not contribute to that problem.
Cross your fingers that this discovery can be followed through quickly and made available before you need, say, open-heart or joint replacement surgery. It’s hell to have to worry you might recover fine from your operation but die of an infection you caught in the hospital.
I’ve been worrying about potential danger from these guys ever since I first heard about them. Now comes some research indicating strongly that nanoparticles/nanofibers could be deadly to humans who are exposed to them. This particular research shows that it may be the length of the fibers that’s critical to whether they might eventually induce disease.
Some scientists set up the experiment with five types of silver nanofibers of various lengths and exposed mice to them. The mice developed inflammation in the pleura (the lining of the lungs) when exposed to fibers of a certain length—4 µm to be precise (that’s 4 millionths of a micron). We are talking tiny.
Since the pleura is exactly the same part of the body that is attacked when asbestos is breathed or ingested, researchers concluded their research could be relevant for colleagues investigating malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM), a deadly and aggressive type of lung cancer. Mesothelioma, as yet incurable, is the subject of lawsuits across the US and around the world because so many corporations either negligently or deliberately concealed from workers the dangers of inhaling or ingesting asbestos.
Asbestos was and is (in third world countries where it is still being widely used without regard for its danger to humans) a highly profitable substance. Its fire-retardant and heat-resistant properties, as well as its ability to be flexible and to strengthen other substances have made it much sought-after for hundreds of years. Profits grew even as those who worked with it were being sickened because of inadequate protections. And the long latency period before asbestos diseases manifest has helped camouflage the disregard for human safety—people may develop mesothelioma cancer as late as 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years after being exposed to asbestos. Who was going to connect a lung disease in a 60-something-year-old with what he did for a living 30 years ago?
This new research is the first solid evidence I’ve seen that nanofibers may hold the same type of danger to human health and life as asbestos. And heaven knows, nanotechnology is looking to be even more profitable than asbestos. The permutations of products made better, stronger, more flexible—almost more anything you want—with nanotechnology seem almost limitless. As may also be the greed of those who stand to make enormous financial gains from its use.
Let’s hope all the profits and material gains do not come at the price of ever more human suffering and lost lives.
Amazingly, scientists were able not only to capture bits of this rare protein—while keeping out the enzymes that would normally destroy those bits—but they’re also able to get the molecules to release those bits when it’s time to analyze the “catch.”
Given how critical early diagnosis is for successfully treating many types of cancer, this is promising work in nanotechnology.
Reading one of my Google alerts for nanotechnology I stumbled on this article and couldn’t quit reading it (even though I only vaguely grasped tiny bits of the concepts). This guy’s talking about a science of engineering that’s far below nanoparticles in scale. It’s called femtotech (sounds kind of like a cross-gender geek hard at work building a new kind of computer somewhere).