The discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming is one such defining moment in medicine, where dangerous and untreatable infections were finally able to be countered. When you think about the impact this simple, natural compound has had, you need only look at the effect of the bubonic plague. Millions of people died needlessly and mass hysteria was rampant, all due to the microscopic Yersinia Pestis bacterium.
Had antibiotics existed back then, the black death probably never would have caused such destruction of life. Without penicillin and the many other antibiotics that have come after it, we would still be suffering and dying from conditions like tuberculosis, the bubonic plague, and cholera. Antibiotics have practically eradicated these conditions from developed countries.
The next great advance
You may be wondering what the next great advance is, and it would have to be pretty big to qualify for the title after the impact that antibiotics have had on medicine. In order to win the title, it would have to help us conquer the greatest killers of our generation just like antibiotics did in Alexander Fleming's time.
Conditions like cancer, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, and AIDS are our plague, but unlike the black death, these conditions are all remarkably complex and difficult to treat. We can often treat the symptoms, or in the case of cancer, we can stage chemical warfare that destroys cancerous cells yet also causes serious harm to healthy cells. We can even bypass arteries and drive the HIV virus close to eradication within the body, adding years to a patient's lifespan.
We don't have any way to actually cure these diseases though. We can cut out a cancerous tumor, hoping that we've removed it all, then blast the tumor site with radiation to try and kill off any remaining cells. We can drive HIV deep into the body where it becomes dormant and hides away—but we can't destroy the HIV virus where it's dormant. We can't always kill cancerous cells—and we can't always prevent a heart attack. All this could soon change with the advent of nanotechnology and nanomedicine.
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology, quite simply, is technology that is based on a nano scale. In this case, the work performed is done at a scale that is even smaller than microscopic. There are hundreds of different applications for this kind of technology, and nanomedicine is just one of these applications.
The race to go smaller and smaller has lead to many advances in modern technology over the years, the most apparent of which is the advent of microprocessors that moved computers from a huge room into a tiny chip. The technology currently used in computing is sized on a micro scale, and nanotechnology is even smaller than this.
At this scale, it is possible to actually arrange atoms and molecules however we want. This gives us a precision that is entirely new to us and could be used to attack individual bacteria, repair damaged cells, and seek out and deactivate viruses directly without harming healthy parts of the body.
The benefits of nanomedicine
The potential benefits of nanomedicine are numerous, and nanomedicine may be used to:
- Allow more precise treatment of cancer
- Possibly even cure most kinds of cancer
- Hunt down and destroy viruses like HIV
- Repair damaged cells and tissue directly
- Scavenge free radicals that can contribute to cancer and aging
- Destroy bacteria and improve upon the immune system
- Bind to and deactivate poisons
- Repair joints and reverse arthritis
- Remove plaque from arteries
- Repair a damaged heart
Of course, there is an ultimate goal to all the nanotechnology research that will benefit medicine like none other, and that goal is the invention of nanobots. These tiny little robots would be introduced into the bloodstream where they are small enough that they can interact with the human body in ways that we can only imagine.
Not only that, but nanobots could find a tumor at the point of which it is just a few cells, beginning to divide into a cancerous mass. Nanobots could find and destroy cancer, months before you or your doctor would even notice any form of anomaly, ridding you of the disease before it ever has time to damage your body or cause you any distress.
Nanomedicine in cancer treatment
Cancer treatment is one of the most important uses of nanotechnology, and this form of nanomedicine already exists and is being used to treat cancer. Tiny capsules of chemotherapy drugs are injected and allowed to seek out cancer through the bloodstream. Once they find a cancerous cell, they are drawn to it and latch on, delivering a dose of anti-cancer drug directly to the tumor where it's needed.
In a number of decades, this process will occur through intelligent robotics. These nanobots won't need to attach to up-regulated receptors to find cancer, they will be able to find cancer cells based on many differences between the cancer cells and your regular cells, and will be intelligent enough to analyse your cells for these differences.
Nanobots could then kill the cancerous cell in much the same way as current nanomedicine, by injecting anti-cancer drugs into the cell itself, or they may even be able to interact with the cell's DNA itself, either correcting the changes and transforming it back into a normal cell, or programming it to undergo apoptosis and kill itself without even using a drug.
By the time nanomedicine is able to accomplish something like this, gene therapy will probably be more common too. Gene therapy will be used to correct the genes that make certain people more susceptible to cancer, lowering your risk of even developing cancer in the first place. Whilst cancer is deadly and often impossible to treat today, the future really does look bright. It's just a matter of time until everything falls into place.
Nanomedine and the synthetic immune system
Nanomedicine, once advanced enough, will be able to bolster the immune system and help your body destroy pathogenic microorganisms and even kill off cancerous cells, but there could be a more incredible application that rises out of this functionality. At some point in time, it will be possible to use nanomedicine to create a synthetic immune system that either replicates the function of your natural immune system or even improves on the natural version.
If you're like most people, you're probably wondering whether you would go so far as to replace your own immune system with a synthetic replica. This may not be the prime use of such a technology however, and it may be possible for a synthetic immune system to exist in harmony with a natural immune system, because it would be primarily used for certain tasks.
One such task in particular is to replace the immune system during a bone marrow transplant. Leukemia is one form of cancer where the immune system itself often needs to be destroyed during treatment to ensure that the cancer can be removed. Between the point where your own immune system is destroyed by radiation, and a bone marrow transplant is performed, you are ultimately left at a phenomenal risk of dying from any form of infection, including the common cold, or even from microbes that are normally harmless.
If a synthetic immune system could be designed from nanomedicine however, such a system could be implemented and used to replace your own immune system during the recovery period. It would be deactivated once your own immune system has built back up to a point where you're no longer susceptible to every little organism that wants to make your body its home. This alone would take a lot of the danger out of full body irradiation.
Other uses for such an immune system could include the treatment of AIDS, severe combined immunodeficiency, and in boosting the function of the immune system after surgery and during infections. A synthetic immune system would be particularly useful in people with AIDS, because the HIV virus requires immune cells to propagate, and it is the destruction of these cells by the virus that destroys the immune system.
If the patient's immune system is replaced with an artificial immune system, the virus could no longer propagate, and it could not hide dormant in macrophages. The virus would be left wide open to an antiviral attack and the patient would not suffer from increased disease. Either the artificial immune system could be left to replace the patient's natural system, rendering them immune to the effects of HIV; or the immune system could be destroyed in order to eradicate the HIV virus, restoring the immune system afterwards. In the meantime, the artificial immune system would protect the patient from disease and they could proceed with their everyday life as normal instead of being isolated in a sterile environment.
One of the loftiest goals of course, is the complete eradication of disease, and at the point where nanobots are developed, an artificial immune system could play a part in this. Working together with the natural immune system, the nanotechnology immune system would offer unique ability to conquer pathogens and cancer that the natural immune system wouldn't be able to deal with. It would also possess the capability of keeping the immune system in check, preventing allergic reactions, cytokine storm, and even Steven Johnson Syndrome by preventing the natural immune system from attacking the healthy body.
When will nanomedicine become widespread?
Like any great advance in science, it's difficult to tell exactly when the nanotech boom will occur. Nanotechnology is already being used in engineering, computing, electronics, and in the form of nanomedicine. It's clear that in the next few decades, at some point, this technology will begin to make leaps and bounds forward.What is definitely certain however, is that nanomedicine is already changing the face of medicine, and it will only get bigger and better as time goes by.