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  • Posted: 12/02/2013

A Snapshot of Nanotechnology

What Is Nanotechnology?

A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and nanotechnology is the creation of materials, devices, and systems on this minuscule scale. This technology is being applied to almost every field imaginable, including electronics, magnetics, optics, information technology, materials development, and biomedicine. Because of their small size, nanoscale devices can interact readily with biomolecules both on the surface of cells and inside them. As a result, they have the potential to detect disease and deliver treatment in ways unimagined before now.

Image depicting how Nanoscale devices are smaller than human cells.
Nanoscale devices are 100–10,000 times smaller than human cells. For reference, the head of a pin is about 1 million nanometers across. A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers in diameter, while a DNA molecule is between 2 and 12 nanometers wide.

Nanotechnology and Cancer

Nanotechnology has many potential impacts on cancer research. In particular, this technology can help facilitate research and improve molecular imaging, early detection, prevention, and treatment of cancer.

Facilitating research: Nanotechnology offers a range of tools that can be used to monitor individual cells and track the movements of cells—and even of individual molecules—in their environment. Such tools will enable researchers to study, monitor, and manipulate the multiple systems that go awry in the cancer process.

Molecular imaging and early detection: Nanotechnology has the potential to help clinicians spot cancer in its earliest stages. Detection of biomarkers using nanotechnology may allow doctors to see cells and molecules that are undetectable through conventional imaging. Additionally, photoluminescent nanoparticles may allow oncologists to visually discriminate between cancerous and healthy cells.

Prevention and control: Advances driven by the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI’s) initiatives in proteomics and bioinformatics will enable researchers to identify markers of cancer susceptibility and precancerous lesions.

Nanotechnology can then be used to develop devices that indicate when those markers appear in the body and that deliver agents to reverse premalignant changes or to kill those cells that have the potential to become malignant.

Therapeutics: Because of their diverse capabilities, nanoscale devices can contain both targeting and therapeutic agents to produce high levels of a given anticancer drug at the tumor site. High local levels of an anticancer drug have the potential to increase the efficacy of a chemotherapeutic and achieve greater tumor reduction with lower doses of the drug. Nanoscale devices also offer the opportunity to develop new approaches to therapy, to combine a diagnostic or imaging agent with a drug, and to determine whether the drug acts on its intended target. "Smart" nanotherapeutics may provide clinicians the ability to "time" the release of an anticancer drug or to deliver multiple drugs sequentially in a timed manner or at several locations in the body.

Figure depicting the detection sensitivity for technologies used in cancer detection and diagnosis. The smallest lesions are detected by Nanotechnology followed by Imaging and Physical Exams.
The Understanding Nanodevices slide presentation is a graphic-rich nanotechnology tutorial for educational use by life science teachers, medical professionals, and the interested public.

NCI Nanotechnology Programs

  • In 2004, NCI created the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, which spearheads the integration of nanotechnology into biomedical research through the coordinated effort of a network of investigators from diverse institutions and organizations:
    • The Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNEs) integrate discovery and tool development for nanotechnology applications into clinical oncology. CCNEs link physical scientists, engineers, and technologists working at the nanoscale with cancer biologists and oncologists.
    • The Cancer Nanotechnology Platform Partnerships are engaged in directed, product-focused research that aims to translate cutting-edge science and technology into the next generation of diagnostic and therapeutic tools. These platforms serve as core technologies for a wide array of applications.
    • NCI established the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL) in concert with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to perform preclinical efficacy and toxicity testing of nanoparticles. By providing critical infrastructure and characterization services to nanomaterial providers, the NCL accelerates the transition of basic nanoscale particles and devices into clinical applications.
  • The Integrative Cancer Biology Program uses nanotechnology to gain new insights into biological processes that are relevant to cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. The program combines experimental biology with mathematical modeling and brings clinical and basic cancer researchers together with researchers in mathematics, physics, information technology, imaging sciences, and computer sciences.
  • NCI is funding Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers (PS-OCs), a collaborative network of 12 leading institutions, to assemble and develop the infrastructure and research programs required to enable cross-disciplinary team research that combines these two fields. One center is focused on using nano- and microfluidic devices to develop a tumor model to explore cancer progression.

Selected Advances in Nanotechnology Research

  • In a proof-of-principle experiment in mice, a nanoparticle-releasing vaccine given orally was able to reach the large intestine and to induce protective immunity in the rectal and vaginal mucosa, obviating the need for direct intrarectal delivery of vaccine. Published July 2012. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Treating pancreatic cancer cell lines with solid lipid nanoparticles containing a novel combination chemoprevention regimen led to sustained drug release and to increased apoptosis. Published September 2012. [PubMed Abstract]
  • A new "nanobeacon" targeting the Thomsen-Friedenreich antigen, a potential biomarker for colorectal cancer development and progression, bound specifically to human colorectal cancer cells and specimens, demonstrating its potential use for the early detection and prediction of progression of colorectal cancer. Published October 2012. [PubMed Abstract]
  • The size of nanoparticles used for drug delivery was inversely correlated with anticancer efficacy in mouse tumor models; thus, smaller particles are likely to hold greater promise for improved cancer therapies. Published February 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • See this PubMed list of selected free full-text journal articles on NCI-supported research relevant to nanotechnology. You can also search PubMed for additional scientific articles or to complete a search tutorial.

Additional Resources for Nanotechnology

  • The NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer Fact Sheet provides an overview of the Alliance’s programs, awardees, accomplishments, and future goals.
  • NCI’s Cancer Nanotechnology Plan (CaNano Plan) provides an overview of the field of cancer nanotechnology--including the current status of development, opportunities for growth, and clinical applications for the technologies--and describes how recent advances are fueling new research.
  • NCI's Nanotech News is an online resource for news about cancer nanotechnology research.

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