Matthew Tirrell University of Chicago

Nanoparticles on Patrol

by Matthew Tirrell, University of Chicago

In the year 2034 nanoparticles will continuously patrol our bodies on the lookout for things that threaten our health, such as vulnerable arteries, precancerous cells, and other disease markers that today’s diagnostic tools can’t detect. The benefits of such a development of clear: the ability to detect disease at an earlier and more treatable stage, to mitigate and lessen the impact of certain conditions, and to prevent others from happening at all. The implications for our health and our economy are significant. 

The good news is that this isn’t science fiction. Two major trends in clinical medicine and the delivery of healthcare are coming together to make this a reality.  

The first trend is the movement from a late curative model of healthcare to an early preemptive model. This new paradigm is sometimes called “4P medicine” – predictive, personalized, preemptive and participatory – and depends on access to information.  Our ability to create individualized information to support predictability, early action, and knowledgeable participation is increasingly coming from the second trend, namomedicine.  

Nanomedicine is quite simply the miniaturization of medical devices, probes, and all types of instrumentation. For example, doctors typically diagnose cancer via a biopsy, which can be invasive and expensive. Microfluidic devices under development now can detect telltale tumor cells floating in the bloodstream. Genomic analysis of single cells is now possible, as is determination of protein expression from single cells. Taken together, these are powerful insights into both genetic makeup and the real-time molecular biology of the patient.

Further development of small-scale equipment will advance point-of-care diagnostics and ambulatory monitoring of patients currently tethered to clinics. With the development of miniaturized devices and wireless communication, the way in which doctors care for patients will change dramatically and the role patients take in their own health care will increase. Health care will become more personalized through tailoring of interventions to individual patients.

However, the ultimate of the trends toward miniaturization – and provision of new information to doctors and patients alike – will come from nanoparticles. Nanoparticles are engineered objects or assemblies that range in size from molecular size, a few nanometers, up to about 1/1000th the cross-section of a human hair, a few hundred nanometers. Nanoparticles will allow detection on the molecular scale: they help identify abnormalities such as vulnerable atherosclerotic plaques, precancerous cells, and disease markers that cannot be detected with traditional diagnostics. Because they are so small, they can be injected into the blood steam and yet avoid elimination mechanisms that sequester larger particles. Nanoparticle-based contrast agents have also been shown to improve the sensitivity and specificity of diagnostic imaging. Nanoparticles can modulate the immune systems as synthetic vaccines. The future holds many new applications for nanoparticles to be on patrol continuously in our body with the capacity to identify, report out on, and mitigate a wide variety of threats to human health.

Matthew Tirrell is the Pritzker Director, Professor and Dean of the Faculty at the University of Chicago Institute for Molecular Engineering and a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. His work has been supported by the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation. 

If you want to make sure that we realize the benefits from this and other scientific advances, let your members of Congress know that federal funding for science matters and should be made a higher national priority. The Science Coalition’s Science Matters toolkit can help you get started.
Categories Medicine