An ounce of prevention with nanotechnology
Technological advancements in healthcare have empowered physicians to more accurately diagnose a wide variety of ailments, while making life saving procedures less painful and invasive for patients. Instruments become smaller, and more surgeries are guided by microscopic cameras and radiological imaging devices. While these advancements are certainly valuable to both doctors and patients, until now, healthcare technology has revolved primarily around diagnosis and treatment, but nanotechnology may change the game.
Nanotechnology’s potential lies in preventative medicine, a cost-effective and common-sense discipline that involves preventing disease from occurring in the first place. Currently, most healthcare systems around the world are merely reactive, meaning they don’t do much to empower the patients, but simply wait for them to get sick or injured before taking any action. This is not good for public heath, since certain diseases can cause long term damage, and a disproportionate number of allopathic medications cause unhealthy and dangerous side effects.
As of now, nanotechnology’s preventative role involves anti-microbial coatings, nanofilters and the monitoring of patient health.
Anti-microbial coatings provide a layer of microbe resistance, making it difficult for harmful microorganisms to adhere to those surfaces that usually become tainted with body fluids during surgical procedures. The coatings are composed of microbicidal agents, such as silver, gold or titanium dioxide particles. The use of these naturally occurring biocides is nothing new. For example, silver’s antimicrobial properties have been known for centuries; even the Phoenicians had observed its effects and would store liquids such as wine, vinegar and water in silver vessels to prevent spoilage. Only recently, however, did scientists discover that silver interrupts the bacteria cells’ ability to form the chemical bonds that are necessary for its survival. These bonds produce the cell’s physical structure, meaning that when a bacterium comes into contact with silver it literally disintergrates. Unlike some other metals, silver is non-toxic and has actually been found to promote the growth of new cells, thus expediting the healing process. The FDA has approved a silver coated breathing tube after it was found that the coating helps to prevent ventilator-associated pneumonia, and silver now plays a role in the manufacturing of items such as bandage materials, catheters and instruments.
By now, most people are well aware that consuming properly filtered water and inhaling clean filtered air can significantly reduce one’s exposure to both pathogens and carcinogenic pollutants. Nanofilters are designed to remove even the smallest microorganisms and contaminant particles, and are already being used to reduce the spread of nonsocomial infections in medical facilities. Nano water filtration uses high pressure to separate contaminants from the water supply. Water is forced through a membrane that is designed with holes which are no larger than .00001 ( 5 micron), which in turn traps and removes volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pathogens and other harmful substances. As rampant pollution is allowed to continue unabated, the demand for air purification is increasing as well. Companies like Hitachi and Mitsubishi are now incorporating nanofiltration methods in their air purifiers and some models of air conditioning units. With this type of air filtration, densely clustered nanoparticles trap and remove allergens, microbes and harmful chemicals from the air. However, one of nanofiltration’s disadvantages is the cost and maintenance of the required membranes, which are an expensive part of the process, and the frequency of repairs and replacements is dependent on the amount of total dissolved solids, the flow rate and components of the feed.
As electronic monitoring becomes ubiquitous, it’s no surprise that the trend has spread to healthcare. Existing applications, along with many bio sensors under development, allow medical professionals to track vital signs, blood glucose and hormone levels, and to detect the presence of antibodies all in one go without obtaining blood from patients. An implantable glucose sensor, for example, can be coupled with an insulin release system to help diabetics monitor and control their condition without finger pricks and subcutaneous injections. Nanotechnology can make it possible to carry out multiple medical tests simultaneously while avoiding laboratory discrepancies. Soon it may even be possible to share this data wirelessly with a physician’s computer or mobile device.
In the near future, the healthcare sector will experience a revolution, and nanotechnology will likely have a major impact on the coming developments.