While the vaccines for Zika and dengue are still in pre-clinical trial stages, several others (such as the flu vaccine) are in clinical trials, and could begin being released more widely in the next two to three years, DeSimone says.
DeSimone’s technology can also be used to engineer nanoparticles that can stimulate the immune system to respond to cancer.
With these nanoparticles, DeSimone says two substances to stimulate an immune system response: antigens (any foreign substance that prompts the production of antibodies) and adjuvants (a substance that enhances an immune response). Together, this helps certain cells more efficiently stimulate T-cell responses.
Dr. DeSimone receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama
Mostafa El-Sayed, a chemistry professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a recipient of the National Medal of Science, has also used nanotechnology in medicine to develop an alternative treatment for cancer. By delivering gold nanorods to cancer cells, El-Sayed’s treatment stops the cells from multiplying, and makes them easier to detect. And because the gold nanoparticles absorb light quickly, converting it to heat, the cells could be selectively killed by shining a light on them.
“Previously, we’ve shown that we can bring gold nanoparticles into cancer cells and by shining a light on them, can kill the cells,” El-Sayed said in an interview with the Journal of the American Cancer Society. “Now we’ve shown that if we direct those gold nanoparticles into the nucleus, we can kill the cancer cells that are in spots we can’t hit with the light.”
The young scientist, Dr. El-Sayed
Despite the wide range of possibilities for the ailments that could be treated with nanomedicine, there are still some skeptics – and ethical questions that have risen with the growth of nanomedicine. For example, some simply wonder whether the chemical composition of certain nanoparticles could have a negative toxic effect on the body. To ease those concerns, scientists like DeSimone have been working to make nanoparticles biodegradable and biocompatible. And Mirkin and his colleagues have shown that spherical nucleic acids – DNA and RNA – are naturally and actively taken up by cells, eliminating the concern for toxicity.
But other critics have questioned whether nanomedicine could open the door to unnecessary human enhancements, rather than just the treatment of disease and chronic medical conditions.
“The potential impact of nanomedicine on society is expected to be huge as the nanopharma market grows significantly in the coming years. Given this backdrop, nanomedicine is poised to add a profound and complex set of ethical and societal questions,” Raj Bawa of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wrote in a paper on ethical concerns with nanomedicine. “Some of these are recurring themes in bioethics while others will be discussed in slightly new ways due to nanomedicine’s interdisciplinary nature: privacy, confidentiality, risks and benefits, defining disease, and enhancement.”
Still, DeSimone says it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind and look for solutions, rather than letting concerns derail the good that could come from nanomedicine.
“You have to be careful of being afraid of the word ‘nano,’ as opposed to the chemistries that are being used in the nanoparticles,” DeSimone says.
Overall, people will want proof, Mirkin says.