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In 1977, Eric Drexler had a revolutionary idea. What if miniscule robots were able to complete tasks for us? Although this idea was a bit far fetched at the time, he was instrumental in pushing nanotechnology into mainstream applications, and some of these ideas have become basis for the most promising medical technologies of our time.

The largest field of study involving nanotechnology is cancer research. Current cancer treatments are notorious for causing horrific side effects. The issue is, we don’t have a way to kill only cancer cells. Instead, doctors aim for the region where the cancerous tumor is located, and anything within that radius will also be destroyed. This makes certain cancers, such as glioblastoma, difficult to treat effectively, without damaging other critical parts of the patient’s body.

The solution may lie in nanotechnology. Rather than targeting a radius, nanodrugs can target specific cells, based on their structure. Scientists can now detect a small amount of cancer cells, .or map the boundaries of a brain tumor within a fraction of a millimeter using new imaging techniques being developed at Stanford. This can lead to a more precise targeting and killing while sparing the normal cells.

There has been numerous advances in nanotech to delivery drugs. The latest nanotreatment includes a doctors injecting a patient with porous silicon material filled with cancer-killing drugs. The drugs make their way to the cancer site , where the silicon breaks down and the drugs are released. If these studies can be replicated in humans, this success could mean increasing a patient’s life by years, and possibly decades.

Nanosensors is another area where we may see significant impact on medicine.. It would become easier to analyze a much larger number of variables in a single test which could be reviewed at a molecular level. This would lead to more precise diagnosis. For example, testing for food allergies and other chemical intolerances could grow in accuracy and safety as current methods are unreliable and sometimes unsafe. To measure lactose intolerance today requires spiking someone with lactose that causes pain and cramps. . This could potentially provide better treatments for millions of people.

Looking forward, this technology could be used in conjunction with personalized medicine. Imagine millions of tiny data-collecting devices could identify the exact cause and severity of a patient’s condition. Gone would be the days of doctors making judgement calls based on subjective feelings or unidentifiable symptoms. Instead, doctors would be able to prescribe the exact dosage needed to treat a disease, based on empirical evidence.

In the meantime, we can rejoice in the success of nanotechnology, which includes slowing the rate of leukemia by modifying T-cells in-vivo in a recent publication from Fred Hutch Cancer Center. Although these treatments are still at an experimental level, in a few short years we will likely see them utilized in many cancer treatments.