Medicine is one of the most commonly cited use cases for nanoscale materials. Manipulating devices and systems at a nanometer scale opens up many possibilities in nanotechnology in medicine, diagnosing and treating diseases, and performing common tests with greater accuracy than before. Years ago, the National Institutes of Health published a list of some potential applications of nanomaterials in health care, many of which have since received greater attention and development, including:
- Highly targeted delivery of genes and drugs
- Precise engineering and regeneration of bodily tissues
- Contrast enhancement for MRIs
- Enhanced detection of proteins and pathogens
- Fluorescent labeling and tagging of proteins
These uses are just a sampling of what could be possible in the coming years through the research, refinement and engineering of health care-focused nanotechnology, potentially for cancer treatment. For example, a recent MarketsandMarkets report found that the global market for nanotech-powered medical applications and devices would reach $8.5 billion by 2019, having expanded at an 11-12% compound annual growth rate from 2014 to 2019.
For engineers considering a career at the intersection of nanomaterials and health care, the future is bright, as these projections for medical devices alone suggest. Career opportunities in this space should benefit from the amount of new interest and funding focused on applications of nanotechnology, as well as the vast size of the U.S. health care sector and its need for better overall quality of care.
Health care is fertile ground for tomorrow’s nanotech applications
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nanotech experts have a particularly good occupational outlook within the larger domain of mechanical engineering, which is already a field with solid prospects. The BLS has forecasted 4% growth in all mechanical engineer positions from 2019 to 2029, while citing the use of nanomaterials in both medicine and microprocessors as a key driver of projected growth.
Meanwhile, the U.S. health care industry should continue to dominate the national economy. According to The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), estimated total health-related spending across the nation grew 4.6 percent in 2019. At that size – much larger than in many other nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development – there is ample room for cost reductions, perhaps through the application of nanotech for improved treatments.
With an eye toward more cost-effective and beneficial care, CMS now oversees multiple programs incentivizing the delivery of higher-quality services by physicians. These initiatives typically hinge on how well providers treat patients with complex conditions and then document their actions via a certified electronic health record system.
So where do nanomaterials fit into this puzzle? For starters, they might simplify the detection of major maladies, providing cancer treatment, as well as options for heart disease and chronic lower respiratory disease, which collectively account for 75% of all deaths each year in the U.S. and create numerous complications beyond that.
The benefits of nanomaterials in preventing and treating disease
A central challenge in traditional cancer treatment is in finding and eliminating cancer cells. Specific therapies, from radiation to chemotherapy, often have substantial side effects and significant costs. With nanomaterials, it might be possible to boost the efficacy of these remedies and inspire new ones as well. Here are some of the advantages of using nanotechnology in medicine based on specific medical use cases:
Cancer and nanobots
At Harvard Medical School, a group of researchers successfully built what it called an “origami nanorobot” from DNA. The payload of this creation is a package of molecules carrying instructions for designated cells, usually pertaining to their destruction. Such nanobots have been tested for inducing cell death in tissues afflicted with leukemia and lymphoma.
This general architecture for seeking and destroying individual cells is useful beyond cancer, for some of the diseases we mentioned earlier and many others. Gold, which is highly malleable and ductile, can be transformed into star-shaped particles carrying pharmaceuticals. The star shape helps make delivery more precise, in some cases allowing drug delivery and administration directly into the nucleus of a cell.
Accurate targeting via nanotech is also promising for harnessing the power of stem cells. For decades, stem cells – which can turn into any type of cell, once developed – have been regarded as a holy grail of medicine, especially for regenerative uses.
In practice, they have proven difficult to apply, because most are rejected by the body and as a result don’t survive being transferred to new environments. Nanomaterials could change that. Synthetic compounds, refined at nanometer scale, could ensure better absorption.
Nanotechnologies are as good for proactive approaches to medicine as they are for reactive ones. Materials such as graphene could be shaped into wearable monitors transmitting data back to hospital-based systems, streamlining care for elderly patients who often require attention in remote locations.
Along similar lines, nanomaterials might be feasible for monitoring circulating tumor cells, the viable cells derived from tumors long thought to be the precursors to metastatic cancers. The key advantages of the nanotech route are scale, flexibility and precision, all of which add up to better diagnoses and treatments. The wearable monitoring capabilities of well-designed nanotech innovations would likely far supersede the current capabilities of gadgets such as smartwatches, wristbands and smartphones.
What are the risks of nanotechnology in medicine?
As with any undeniably impactful opportunity, there’s always room for risk, especially in the medical world. Rapid advancement in technology only makes the potential disadvantages even more common, but it can also make it easier to anticipate, providing potential options for safeguarding.
As the Victorian Trades Hall Council described, the characteristics of what makes nanotechnology attractive to the medical industry (mostly size and modification potential) are what make nanomaterial risky for humans and the environment in general. But why?
- Size and mobility: Nanomaterials are small enough that if ingested, they can pose a serious threat to certain internal organs. They can penetrate cell members in the gut that can ultimately give them almost immediate access to the brain, as highlighted by Medical News Today.
- Solubility and persistence: If there is a presence of insoluble nanoparticles, they may not be broken down if digestion occurs. This is just another entryway for nanomaterial to damage organs.
- High reactivity: The surface area to mass ratio in nanomaterials is heavy. This can make them cause a chemical reaction in an instant or bond with other toxins. Ultimately, this can create an environment in which they can enter other cells, particularly ones that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
- “For instance, with their large surface area, reactivity and electrical charge, nanomaterials create the conditions for what is described as ‘particle aggregation’ due to physical forces and ‘particle agglomeration’ due to chemical forces, so that individual nanoparticles come together to form larger ones,” Catharine Paddock, Ph.D., explained to Medical News Today. “This may lead not only to dramatically larger particles, for instance in the gut and inside cells, but could also result in the disaggregation of clumps of nanoparticles, which could radically alter their physicochemical properties and chemical reactivity.”
Further research into these potential disadvantages can make it easier to dodge risk factors and use nanomaterials in medicine as intended.
What to do if you are considering a career in health-focused nanotechnology
Given the BLS projections for mechanical engineering in general and nanoengineering in particular, now is a good time to think about acting on your interests in nanomaterials. While many engineers enter these fields with only a bachelor’s degree, additional credentials can qualify you for advanced positions while also extending your industry knowledge and technical skill.
An online master’s degree in nanomaterials is your ticket to success in a rapidly evolving sector of the economy. The online Master of Science in Engineering at UC Riverside can be your ticket to gaining the additional skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the world of nanotechnology in medicine. Blending targeted engineering expertise and management strategy, this program is designed to create the next generation of leaders in science engineering.
Some of the benefits of this program include:
- Picking a specialization. The UC Riverside online Master of Science in Engineering program has six educational specializations to choose from. Materials at the Nanoscale focuses specifically on the practices, processes and applications of nanotechnology. You’ll learn how to analyze industry trends and research as they relate to nanomaterial design and processes.
- Graduating in as few as 13 months. An expedited program, the online Master of Science in Engineering can be completed in as few as 13 months.
- Earning a degree from an accredited school. Employers like to see that you went to a school with an established reputation for providing quality education. The University of California, Riverside is regionally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. U.S. News & World Report also named UC Riverside among the top 33% of engineering schools across the country.
- Learning with convenience in mind. In many cases, professionals are intimidated by the idea of returning to school because of the time constraint and commitment when they already have work and home responsibilities. Because the UC Riverside online Master of Science in Engineering program is 100% online, it offers flexibility in doing the work on your own time. There’s also no residency requirement, and students can choose from three different dates per year to start the program.
Are you ready to take charge of your future and take your career to the next level? Learn more about the program and sign up for regular updates from us by visiting UC Riverside’s Nanotechnology program page.