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In medicine, small is about to become big Nanotechnology is poised to make huge leaps in the treatment of disease at the cellular level

The Boston Globe
By Stephen Heuser
Posted on May 8, 2006

CHICAGO — In a darkened conference room, at the country’s largest gathering of biotech executives, the slides clicked onto the screen with as much punch and drama as a black-and-white micrograph can pack.

In the first frame, highly magnified cancer cells appeared, surrounded by tiny black dots. In the second frame, cells were gone — dissolved into a mass of goo.

The tiny black dots were manmade particles that hunt down cancer cells and perch around their edges. The particles start heating up when hit with a powerful magnetic field. The effect on a cancer cell is not unlike that of a hammer on a water balloon.

“People think it’s unbelievable that such a technology exists,” said Samuel Straface, who had shown the slides only to a handful of potential investors before presenting them at the Biotech Industry Organization conference last month.

His company, Triton BioSystems Inc. of Chelmsford, has never tested its technique on humans, and is still years away from the kind of clear medical proof that could turn its experiments into a usable treatment. The tumor cells on the slides were taken from a mouse. But its technology is among the most commercially advanced examples of a new approach to medicine emerging from the science of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology — the idea of building new things at the molecular level — has enjoyed swells and eddies of enthusiasm since the term was coined in the 1970s. It is still chiefly a materials science, with heavy research funding from the Department of Defense. But as biologists learn more about the cellular causes of disease, and engineers improve their ability to manipulate matter — including drugs — at ever-smaller levels, nanotech is poised to make huge leaps in medical treatment, many say.

At the annual Nano Science and Technology Institute conference in Boston this week — a meeting that covers all aspects of the field, from national security to “functional food design” — healthcare is the fastest-growing topic, said institute cofounder Matthew Laudon.

So far, relatively few nano-devices have crossed the line from research to human therapy. Many that have are traditional substances, such as drugs or metals, milled down to “nano” scale, creating tiny particles that can be more effective than the traditional version.

A Wakefield company, Nucryst Pharmaceuticals Corp., sells high-tech bandages for skin ulcers and burns infused with nano-particles of silver, whose natural antibiotic properties become more pronounced as the particles become smaller and can react more readily with the body.

More advanced devices are still the province of university researchers and a handful of young companies, fueled by a growing stream of government money.

The National Cancer Institute last fall dedicated $144 million to nanotech cancer research over the next five years, much of it pouring into eight new “centers of excellence” that include a joint MIT-Harvard program. Triton BioSystems uses technology developed partly with Pentagon funding. In Washington, the National Nanotechnology Initiative has emerged as a clearinghouse for the numerous agencies funding nano-projects.

One common approach to creating nano-therapies is to hitch a “targeting” molecule, which can find cancer cells in the body, to another particle that can identify the cell to doctors — or kill it outright. A tiny ball of radioactive material, for example, could be carried to the tumor to irradiate it from within. Microscopic bits of metal could be used to dissolve tumor cells with heat, as with Triton’s system, or highlight it on a body scan, so doctors can find growing cancers that would otherwise be impossible to detect.

Sangeeta Bhatia, a medical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has come up with a way to create iron particles small enough to sneak into cancer cells, and coated in such a way that they automatically clump together when exposed to certain proteins inside the tumor.

At Northeastern University, Mansoor Amiji and Vladimir Torchilin are investigating ways to pack capsules with chemotherapy, creating tiny drug bubbles that could sneak into tumors through their blood vessels and penetrate the cells before releasing their toxic payload. In the future, they say, the capsules could have additional functions, such as helping doctors track the size of the tumor as well as the drug’s effect.

For all its promise, nanotechnology suffers from a few problems peculiar to a young field.

For one thing, no one agrees exactly what qualifies as “nanotechnology.” The Food and Drug Administration, responsible for regulating any nanotech products, does not even have a working definition of the term. Some engineers say it applies to any object less than 100 nanometers across — about the size of a virus, and far smaller than a red blood cell. (A human hair is at least 20,000 nanometers thick.) Others say the limit is 400 nanometers.

One common definition holds that true nanotechnology must involve physical properties that exist only on such tiny scales. Nano-particles of gold, for example, are red rather than yellow.

Nanotech is better known for its sinister potential than for anything it can actually do. Michael Crichton’s novel “Prey” sold more than a million copies in 2002, scaring readers with a vision of tiny manmade “nanobots” that develop a predatory collective intelligence and begin hunting down their human creators.

Even more alarming: the “gray goo” scenario developed by an early nanotech theorist, which holds that a tiny, self-replicating device could end up consuming all the organic material on earth, turning the world into a sterile mush.

Such “bots” and their risks, however, still lie in the distant future. Health regulators worry more about the unpredictable effects of tiny drug molecules and other substances engineered on a scale never used in human bodies.

“When it comes down to the nanoscale, no one really knows how those particles are going to interact with, say, humans,” said Chinh Pham, a nanotech lawyer with Greenberg Traurig LLP in Boston. “Is this going to be the new asbestos? Who knows. There could be a lot of health issues with particles that small.”

Concerned about the arrival of such materials, the FDA recently said it would hold a major public meeting in the fall to air concerns and determine what tiny medical products might be coming next.

Right now, nanotech is more a university research project than a business proposition. Healthcare venture capitalist David Douglass of Delphi Ventures in California said he has not seen many pitches from nanotech companies, and Triton’s Straface is searching for a round of venture investment so the company can pay for the first human tests of its system. He is still in talks with the FDA about how his product would be regulated — as a device, or as a drug.

He stressed that “nanotech” may be a buzzword right now, but many of its features are long-understood principles of current science, only smaller.

“I’d rather use the word evolution than revolution,” he said. “There has been a lot of work done over a long period of time in this area. It may not have been called nanotechnology, but that’s what it is today.”

Stephen Heuser can be reached at

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