A Snapshot of Nanotechnology

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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 materials and devices can interact readily with biomolecules both on the surface of cells and inside them. As a result, such materials and devices 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 uses in cancer research. In particular, this technology can 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. In addition, photoluminescent nanoparticles may allow oncologists to visually discriminate between cancerous and healthy cells.

Prevention and control: Advances driven by 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 chemotherapeutic efficacy against cancer 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.

Understanding nanodevices slide graphic.

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 engage 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.
    • The Cancer Nanotechnology Training Centers (CNTC) educate and train researchers from diverse fields in the use of nanotechnology-based approaches to advance understanding of cancer biology and create new methods and tools for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
    • The Pathway to Independence Awards in Cancer Nanotechnology Research are awarded to post-doctoral scientists working on cancer nanotechnology to facilitate a timely transition from a mentored postdoctoral research position to a stable independent research position with the overall goal of maintaining a strong pool of new talented investigators focused on research in cancer nanotechnology.
    • 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.
  • NCI’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers program, a collaborative network of 12 institutions, is bringing together cancer biologists, oncologists, and researchers from disciplines in the physical sciences to address major questions and barriers in cancer research. Several centers are using nanotechnology-based approaches, including one center that is using nanofluidic and microfluidic devices to model the tumor environment in three-dimensions.

Selected Advances in Nanotechnology Research

  • A nanotechnology-based device that detects thioredoxin-interacting protein partners was able to distinguish between the stromal tissue associated with prostate cancer and that associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia in frozen sections of prostate tumor tissue. Published June 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • In a preclinical study, a nanoparticle-encapsulated oral formulation of the active ingredient in green tea showed greater therapeutic benefit against prostate cancer xenografts in mice than a non-encapsulated control formulation. Published September 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Encapsulation of luteolin, a natural compound found in green vegetables, in a water-soluble polymer to form nanoparticles improved the compound’s ability to inhibit the growth of human lung cancer and head and neck cancer cells both in cell culture and in mice, suggesting that nanoparticle delivery of similar naturally occurring dietary agents may have potential applications for chemoprevention. Published January 2014. [PubMed Abstract]
  • A multifunctional nanomedicine platform developed from a single polymer can increase imaging sensitivity, can efficiently convert light to heat inside tumors (photothermal therapy), and can efficiently deliver drugs to tumors, demonstrating a broad range of clinically relevant uses. Published August 2014. [PubMed Abstract]

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.
  • Posted: November 5, 2014