The incredible creativity of nanotechnology

“A scientific discipline still in the early stages of development; yet, significant impacts are already being made.”

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Going small can have a huge impact — at least when it comes to nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology exists at a tiny scale, about 1,000 times more narrow than a human hair. This size offers entirely new solutions for tackling a host of problems, especially those related to keeping people healthy

Dr. Robert Langer, a recipient of both the National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology and Innovation, will discuss the potential of nanotechnology on November 8 at An Evening With Titans of Nanotechnology. As he sees it, that potential is a force for good in the world.

Langer’s use of nanomedicine to treat disease has impacted 2 billion lives. He also holds more than 1,000 patents, has launched two-dozen startups and is a professor at MIT.

At the event, Langer will be joined by Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, Dr. Chad Mirkin, and Nobel Laureate Fraser Stoddart. Dr. Shana Kelley will moderate the discussion.

Mirkin views nanotechnology as “one of the greatest opportunities in science that exist today.” Mirkin is the director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology and a professor at Northwestern University.

“Scale is, in fact, a way of changing material properties — and that’s one of the most powerful revelations in nanotechnology,” Mirkin said.

“Everything old becomes new when miniaturized. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you take it from the bulk to the nano-scale it will have different properties,” he added.

For example, Bhatia said a brick of gold at nano-scale looks red.

“Materials can change not just their color but their electronic properties and their magnetic properties,” she said. “That can be exploited and that’s the area of science that has captured the imagination of some chemists and engineers and physicists.”

Bhatia is trained as both a physician and engineer. She is the director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine and a professor at MIT.

Stoddart adds that “Nanotechnology is a great uniter of the disciplines,” a rarity in the world of scientific research. Stoddart received the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and is credited with the introduction of the “mechanical bond.” He is also a professor at Northwestern.

For Langer, bridging disciplines was key to creating new kinds of therapies, from blood vessels inhibitors to treating cancers and other diseases.

“I ended up working in a hospital [where] I was the only engineer,” he said. “That gave me a lot of ideas about how I could apply chemical engineering to medicine.”

Langer’s approach to medicine also required systems small enough to deliver these drugs — first, that meant creating micro-systems, then applying nanotechnology.

“If you didn’t make things tiny, you couldn’t get them into cells,” Langer said. “If we’re going to deliver the drugs inside a cell we needed to make it even smaller.”

Bhatia called nanotechnology  “the perfect toolbox” for tackling illness at the cellular level.

“That really is the same exact length scale that distinguished between health and disease,” she said.

“Materials will go to different places in your body depending on what size they are,” Bhatia added. “They can go into different tissues and different cells.

This is possible, Bhatia said, because of the way nanotechnology communicates to the body via cell receptors, which are about 10 nanometers.

Nanotechnology, Mirkin said, holds the promise of creating the next generation of medicines “that go beyond what we can currently do today to treat — and in certain cases cure — different forms of disease.”

Langer also noted the “drugs of the future,” will tackle disease by turning genes “on and off.”

With nanotechnology,  “you’re in the position to create something that no one else has ever created,” Stoddart added, highlighting his field of chemistry.

“It’s just like painting a picture or writing a novel or making a sculpture or composing a piece of music: you have a chance to be incredibly creative,” he said.

Stoddart added that “from a scientific view you don’t follow the beaten track.”

For Langer, that means discoveries that “can make the world a better, happier place. That gives me personal satisfaction.”

“I think an awful lot of scientists are scientists because they are curious,” he added. “I’m somewhat curious but really the thing that drives me isn’t just discovering something. For me, it is seeing that science can change the world.”

Mirkin said nanotechnology, “as a scientific discipline is still in the very early stages of development,” said Mirkin. “Yet, significant impacts are already being made.

Outside of medicine, he said nanotechnology “is beginning to address a broad range of global challenges in environmental science, food and water safety and other disciplines.”

“Science can do good,” Langer added. “It is a terrific career and … you can change the world and make it better.”

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