Tiny breakthroughs promise big change

THE expression "good things come in small packages" was coined long before the massive advances in technology which marked the latter half of the last century and have continued into this.

But it has certainly been an apt phrase as technology allowed ever more information to be crammed on to ever smaller microchips. Televisions have got sleeker and slimmer, computers portable and light and cameras miniscule enough to explore inside our bodies. From health to leisure and work, this particular form of downsizing has made our lives richer and more convenient.

But, as 1000 of the world's top scientists will hear next month when they gather in the Capital, the next revolution will be down to the tiniest technology yet.

The Nanotechnology - Promising a Revolution in Healthcare? conference to be held in Edinburgh will be told how, within a decade, tiny specks known as nanoparticles will revolutionise everything from the treatment of cancer to the fight against tooth decay.

Nanoparticles are individual atoms or molecules 80,000 times thinner than the width of a human hair which have been manipulated for a purpose - for instance, nanoparticles have already been tailored to identify malignant bowel cancer cells.

The term nanotechnology means the creation of materials, devices, and systems through the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules.

Nanotechnology is already worth billions and can be applied to a range of disciplines, including electronics, engineering, chemistry and medicine.

But one area where it is expected to have a major impact is in healthcare - not least because it should dramatically cut the bill for the NHS.

Ottilia Saxl, chief executive of the Stirling-based Institute of Nanotechnology, explains:

"Nanotechnology is a means of making medicine cheaper and more effective and more convenient."

In the future, poorly patients could check out their own health by using an off-the-shelf "nanolaboratory". A drop of blood, for example, is all it might take for sensors on a computer chip on the tiny laboratory to come back with an immediate diagnosis of a range of illnesses.

So the need to rely on the hospital laboratory for test results is also expected to diminish - something that will save NHS cash.

And with fewer waiting lists, earlier diagnosis could improve patients' chances of recovery.

Cancer treatments are also facing a revolution, with technology being developed that can administer treatment directly to the affected area, diminishing the risk of unwelcome side-effects.

Ms Saxl says: "The thing with cancer treatments is they take people down to within an inch of death because of the toxic side-effects.

"If we can treat a small tumour, for example, locally, then that's so much more effective and it can be targeted in lower doses.

"Some arthritis drugs are already administered in this way but for cancer this is coming sooner rather than later. It's really rather magical."

Scientists have already discovered how to diagnose colon cancer by designing the nanoparticles to glow when they react with malignant cells.

Ms Saxl adds that researchers in Germany have used magnetic nanoparticles to treat 15 patients who had inoperable brain tumours and were expected to die.

The nanoparticles were effective in dissolving the cancer cells.

For more common conditions, such as sight problems, nanotechnology is also expected to provide answers in the next few years.

"Nanotechnology will soon allow people who were previously classified as blind to be able, by means of implant, to regain some of their vision," explains Ms Saxl. "The ones available just now for the deaf and blind are very crude indeed."

Bulky and ineffective hearing aids are also set to be a thing of the past with new tiny electronic implants already in development. They are expected to transform the lives of the hard of hearing.

There could also be hope for desperate patients awaiting donor transplants in future with the nanotechnology expected to be able to regenerate organs that have stopped working.

Rather than relying on donors, it is hoped that within the decade it will be possible to grow new tissue from the patient's own DNA.

It is also anticipated that pacemakers and other medical devices will begin communicating electronically with hospitals and physicians.

But with any advance in technology, there are many ethical questions to be considered in terms of how far the cloning technology would go and who would have access to patient information gathered by implants.

"There are many, many ethical questions that all need to be addressed," says Ms Saxl. "We need to look at the way in which it may divide the rich from the poor and look at whether it is right to keep people alive for even longer than they are living already."

It is issues like this that will take centre stage when up to 1000 scientists and doctors from all over the world converge on the Capital to share information and debate the issues.

The conference has been organised by the Institute of Nanotechnology and takes place at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre next month.

During the conference, members of the public are also invited to put their questions and concerns to an international panel of experts at a meeting chaired by BBC Newsnight science editor Susan Watts.

Ms Saxl adds: "At the conference and meeting we want to show that nanotechnology is offering great benefits to medicine and, in the future, will solve many of the problems we have today."

For more information about the public meeting on September 5, e-mail Jason@nano.org.uk or call 01786 447520

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