Nanotechnology has mind-boggling applications – and Swedish research is at the forefront of international nanoscience. At the Ångström Laboratory in Uppsala, Sweden, Maria Strømme’s research group is focusing on how nanotechnology can be used in medicine.
Professor Maria Strømme and her team at the Ångström Laboratory in Uppsala explore the possibilities of nanotechnology. Photo: Thomas Nordanberg
A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about 1/80,000 of the diameter of a human hair. Nanotechnology involves manipulating the structure of particles smaller than a few hundred nanometers.
This makes it possible, for instance, to change the structure of what are known as pharmaceutical carriers – which are used in medicine to transfer pharmaceuticals to cells in the body – so that they better protect the pharmaceuticals from being broken down when they are deposited in moist environments.
New pharmaceutical carriers
Maria Strømme describes nanotechnology as a multidisciplinary toolbox. She is a physicist working at the Ångström Laboratory at Uppsala University and for several years has been the school’s youngest full professor of nanotechnology. The Ångström Laboratory also has expertise in material physics, which is important for customizing the structure and physical properties of different materials.
The work of Strømme’s research group includes the development of new types of pharmaceutical carrier. These carriers could be described as tiny “wheelbarrows” that are filled with the active pharmaceutical ingredient to be used. Inside the body, they have to move quickly to a fixed location and then “dump their load” there.
The new pharmaceutical carriers consist of semi-porous particles of silica that have pores in their structure where the ingredient that is being transferred can be placed.
Strømme's research group is trying to find new ways to make pharmaceuticals target the right locations in the body. Photo: P Fromherz
“We’ve done tests on living cells and have had indications that the particles are absorbed effectively,” Strømme says. “In theory, nanoparticles of silica should be ready for clinical use within three to four years, but we first have to know exactly how they are broken down and whether they have any toxic effects.”
Pharmaceuticals less sensitive to moisture
Another way to make more effective pharmaceuticals is to change the surface or structure of the inactive ingredient in a pill, that is, the material that is not the active pharmaceutical ingredient. This is the bonding agent that both keeps a pill in one piece and ensures that it breaks down in the intestine. The most common binding agent is microcrystalline cellulose.
But there is a disadvantage to this bonding agent. Microcrystalline cellulose carries moisture to medicines that are sensitive to moisture, which risks diluting the effect of the medicine. This is why Strømme’s group has altered the nanostructure of the cellulose so that the cellulose fibers can better bond with water and the pharmaceutical ingredient in pills can better withstand moisture.
The technology is now being evaluated for commercial use in a test factory in New Jersey, the US, in partnership with a multinational corporation. Strømme is also working with the private sector in other ways. In collaboration with pharmaceutical companies she has taken out patents on nanostructured pharmaceutical carriers, and she is now looking for financing to develop other specific pharmaceutical carriers.
Be your own doctor
Another goal in Strømme’s research is to develop a diagnostic platform for medical self-testing for home use. Currently, there are only a few self-tests on the market.
With tests based on nanotechnology, it should be possible to study the occurrence of any biomolecule; with a test bought at a pharmacy, people should be able to see, for instance, whether they have a throat infection that requires antibiotics.
Along with giving individuals greater control over their health, this form of diagnostics would also relieve some of the pressure on the healthcare system, Strømme argues.
Debate on ethics needed
It’s easy to talk about the advantages of this technology. The impact that nanotechnology is expected to have on society has been compared with that of the computer, the car and the railway in their time.
“But there’s no doubt that there are risks involved,” Strømme says. Researchers are still working on developing the toolbox that is needed to evaluate all the risks that nanotechnology entails. This will come three to four years after the actual ingredient is developed.
“In the near future, we’ll also need a basic debate on the ethics, as well as legislation on what the new technology is to be used for,” Strømme says. “What is it ethically defensible to find out about? Should we make a home test for Alzheimer’s disease? Should employers and insurance companies then have access to this information?”
Many questions remain, but it sure seems that nanotechnology is here to stay.
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Eva Cederquist is a medical journalist with the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and also works as a freelance writer in medical journalism.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Translation: Susan Long
© Photo 1: Thomas Nordanberg
© Photo 2: P Fromherz
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