Frontline researchers based in Switzerland say nanotechnology is central to the evolution of “personalized medicine” to find optimal treatments for patients with diseases such as cancer. How far will this advanced technology go? How close are you to the world of science fiction novels?
This content is on 2021/10/02 12:00
When you hear the prefix “nano”, it brings to mind the mysterious world of science fiction novels. However, nanoscience simply refers to technology that can manipulate nano-sized particles or molecules. Professor at the University of Basel (Physical Chemistry), Swiss Institute for Nanosciences in BaselTo another siteCornelia Parisin, who is also a member ofTo another siteHe believes nanotechnology should bring hope rather than fear.
swissinfo.ch: Is it possible that nanotechnology injected into the human body somehow controls and manipulates humans?
Cornelia Parivan: You can’t. This is far from such a scenario. “Nano robot” is the science fiction world to this day. Attractive but unrealistic. There may be dangers such as nanoparticles containing toxic compounds at best, or deadly chemical and biological weapons that could be developed by the government, but these are poisons, not at all big. The prefix “nano” does not indicate the good or the bad of the technology, but means how to solve problems at the molecular level. This can be very useful, especially in medical practice.
Domination of nanorobots: is nanotechnology a threat to humans?swissinfo.chOriginalSFThe first of the short series “Tomorrow’s Utopia and Dystopia”2You can read the timetables here.
swissinfo.ch: Where are nanotechnologies today?
Parivan: My research group uses nanotechnology in various fields such as medical care, ecology and food. To this end, we are developing a material called “biohybrid”, which can be made by combining biomolecules such as proteins and enzymes with extremely small amounts of synthetic materials. A very small capsule container with a radius of less than 100 nanometers is made from this material, for example, an enzyme is encapsulated so that the enzyme works when the capsule is absorbed by the body.
One of the problems with medical treatments is that the effectiveness of the biomolecules contained in the drugs is quickly reduced. By using bio-hybrid materials such as the nano-containers we have developed, we can maintain full function of proteins and enzymes and keep them activated. In addition, this synthetic “nanocapsule” protects the biomolecules and keeps them intact.
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swissinfo.ch: Are “nano-pharmaceuticals” more effective than conventional drugs?
Pariva: Yes. But it’s not just about efficiency. The greatest challenge of modern medicine is to reduce the side effects of drugs and to improve their safety. Anyone can go to the pharmacy and buy medicine in different colors to treat different illnesses. But the question is what is in these drugs. The idea is that future doctors will not just prescribe the drug to the patient, but will ensure that the drug works in the right place and does not harm other parts of the body. This is what everyone expects when going to a pharmacy. In this regard, nanotechnology is useful because it allows the “manufacturing” of drug carriers.
Research using nanotechnology involves trying to mimic nature by understanding how certain proteins work in cells and supplementing them when they are deficient due to disease. Like most drugs, the traditional method of introducing molecules into the powder risks the substance being too large to be absorbed and enter the cell.
A well-known example is a vaccine based on m (messenger) RNA technology, such as a vaccine against novel coronavirus infections. Incorporates ribonucleic acid (RNA) into nanoparticles that act as carriers. The vector protects the molecule and transports it to where it is needed. Chemically produced nanoparticles are more likely to be taken up by cells.
swissinfo.ch: As long as it is a new technology, are there any risks for nanotechnology?
Parivan: Of course it is. However, years of testing and clinical results are required before nanotechnology can be fully evaluated, so it is not possible to say what the risks are. So it’s natural for people to ask questions. For example, the corona vaccine is known to work well and in the short term, but not yet in the long term. Nobody had time to study the product produced a year and a half ago. Scientific research on the long-term risks is needed.
But there is something very important. In order to sell a drug, not only the drug but also its carrier are researched and studied for many years, and the test fails. Every time you make a mistake at a certain stage, you have to start over, which can be a very frustrating process. However, the human body being a very complex institution, this process is unavoidable and necessary to guarantee the safety of medicines. The same is true for nanotechnology. No matter how promising a solution you create, it will be rejected if you don’t go through all the experimental steps.
swissinfo.ch: In which areas will nanotechnology play an active role in the future?
Parivan: In the medical field, it is particularly useful for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Nanoparticles are well known as contrast agents. It can be very useful in identifying tumors in specific parts of the body and monitoring the orientation of tumor cells (cancer cells). In addition, nanotechnology will be a major driver for precise and patient-friendly medical care, which is essential for the treatment of cancer. This is the only possible future (in the field of treatment). In this sense, nanoscience, capable of understanding all kinds of vectors and specific antibodies at the molecular level, is the only solution. This is why we can consider nanotechnology as the medical care of the future.
In other fields, nanosciences could solve the major problem of water purity and contribute to ecology. Water can be purified using nanoparticles containing proteins that control pollutants. Nanoparticles could also be used in the food industry to detect changes and deterioration in food quality.
swissinfo.ch: Who can buy such a future drug?
Parivan: Yes, the price is high and not everyone can buy it, but we still don’t see a solution to this problem. Companies that develop nanotechnology want to keep prices high and hold patents for as long as possible because of their profitability. Again, the issue is still not resolved.
swissinfo.ch: Does this mean that in the future only certain wealthy people will be able to receive treatment against cancer thanks to nanotechnology, for example?
Parivan: If the cost of treatment doesn’t go down, unfortunately it will. I want to be more optimistic, but the prospects are not yet clear. Global political perspectives and action at the international level will be needed. The efforts of some countries like Switzerland and France are not enough.
swissinfo.ch: Do you think there will be a future in which nanotechnology extends human life?
Parivan: Some experiments have been done, but the human body is so complicated and wonderful that it is very difficult. There are two other major challenges. One is to prolong life, and the other is to improve the quality of life and prolong life. We know that as life expectancy increases, neurodegenerative diseases increase. From this point of view, it is more important to live as long as possible in good health than simply to live longer.
My research group works on “artificial organelles”. Organelles such as mitochondria are the basic cellular structure of life. We want to imitate nature with artificial organelles that contain synthetic materials that increase durability. It is expected to be a technology that has the potential to support the processes that form the basis of life in the future.
(Translation from French, Mari Eto)
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