By Chris Wood, Senior Analyst

Back in December of 1959, Richard Feynman gave his now-famous lecture titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, during which he essentially anticipated what we now call nanotechnology. Feynman never mentioned the word “nanotechnology” in his talk, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that nanotech researchers began regularly citing his lecture, but what he did do was posit the amazing possibilities afforded by miniaturization.

While it’s true that we don’t yet have the capabilities Feynman envisioned – of building “a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously” from the bottom up, atom by atom – nanotechnology (the science of things at the nanometer or molecular scale) is already a large part of our modern economy. As fabrication techniques become more cost effective and applications in more areas are discovered, the sky’s the limit.

One of the biggest opportunities we see on the horizon is in nanomedicine, which is simply the application of nanotechnology to medicine; i.e., the diagnosis and treatment of disease. According to the recent study Nanomedicine(s) Under the Microscope by Ruth Duncan of Valencia, Spain’s Polymer Therapeutics Lab and Rogerio Gaspar of Lisbon, Portugal’s Nanomedicine & Drug Delivery Systems Group, nanomedicine “encompasses the three main nanotechnology areas being developed for healthcare applications:

  • “Diagnostics, sensors and surgical tools that are used outside the patient.
  • “Innovative imaging agents and monitoring technologies that can be used for diagnostic and sensing applications; from cells to patients.
  • “Innovative technologies and biomaterials (sometimes combined with cell therapy) that are used for drug delivery, for tissue engineering, and to promote tissue repair. Some applications require only ex vivo manipulations, but most require patient administration via any one of a number of different routes (e.g., topical, oral, parenteral, pulmonary, surgical implantation etc).”

The roots of modern nanomedicine can be traced back to at least the 19th century – but perhaps the most famous example is Paul Ehrlich, who coined the term “magic bullet” and championed the concept of cell-targeted therapies. And while more than 40 products have completed the journey from the lab to routine clinical use, the science is still really in its infancy. Thus, articles in the popular press often overhype it at both ends of the spectrum – either as a technological revolution already able to address countless unmet medical needs or a dangerous science that will end up wreaking havoc on our health. In the decades to come there’s no telling how far nanomedicine will go (as optimists we’re betting it will be something closer to the former than the latter), but the current state of the art lies between the two extremes.

Fears about the potential toxicity of nanomedicine, though often overblown, are not without merit. Nanoparticles are so small they have virtually unrestricted access to the human body and are able to evade detection by the body’s immune system as well as pass through the blood-brain barrier. While such traits are what make nanoparticles so useful in medicine, it’s also what makes them potentially harmful if they are not biodegradable and therefore able to accumulate in organs like the liver. Nevertheless, the benefits of nanomedicine seem to outweigh the risks in many if not most scientists’ eyes, which has resulted in huge advances in the area over the past several years, particularly in drug delivery and diagnostic and imaging techniques.

Nanomedicines on the market today comprise first-generation technologies like liposomes (artificially prepared vesicles composed of the same material as a cell membrane that can be filled with drugs) and PEGylated pharmaceuticals (drugs that have been altered through the covalent attachment of polyethylene glycol polymer chains to mask the agent from the host’s immune system). Meanwhile, technologies such as iron-oxide nanoparticles (which are well established magnetic-resonance imaging agents) and various nanocrystals are finding new indications in numerous late-stage clinical trials.

While these first-generation nanomedicines have shown great promise in imaging and treating disease, they are not without their drawbacks. For example, polymers like PEG are not biodegradable, which may cause harm due to accumulation within lysosomes (cellular organelles that contain enzymes to break down waste materials and cellular debris) after high doses or chronic administration.

Despite the potential drawbacks and challenges to overcome, the future of nanomedicine looks bright. Although moving from lab to patient is a long and trying process, the fact that labs around the world are announcing scientific breakthroughs on virtually a daily basis speaks to the opportunities that lie ahead.

One new technique that is currently in the development stage delivers anti-cancer drugs in packets or “bubbles” of nanoparticles to the tumor, where they accumulate. Ultrasound can then be directed at the target, popping the bubbles and releasing the drug within a well-defined area. Another unrelated line of research uses antibodies to deliver a packet of gold nanoparticles to the cancer cell. An intense, focused laser beam is then used to explode the nanobubble, bursting the cell. And yet another oncological effort is Kanzius RF Therapy, which aims to insert metallic nanoparticles in or around cancerous cells and then excite these particles using radio waves. The energy from the radio waves heats the metal, which burns the cancerous cell cluster.

Some more of the recent lab breakthroughs include:

  • Using polymer-coated gold nanoparticles to enhance detection of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and provide a means of detecting cancer earlier.
  • Using lipid-polymer nanoparticles to engineer a formulation of docetaxel (a well-established anti-mitotic chemotherapy drug) to improve the efficiency of chemoradiotherapy.
  • Using nanofibers of polyvinyl alcohol and polyethylene oxide to encapsulate antibiotics, which gives them the ability to destroy even the most drug-resistant bacteria so completely that scientists described the remains as mere “ghosts.”
  • Using modified gold nanoparticles to develop a leukemia-DNA biosensor capable of diagnosing the disease in less than 20 minutes.
  • Using carbon nanoparticles to encapsulate chemotherapeutic drugs for enhanced treatment of head and neck cancers.

Meanwhile, emerging materials like carbon nanotubes and quantum dots are also entering the fray. The unique geometry and electrochemical and thermal properties of carbon nanotubes make them potentially well-suited as drug carriers, imaging agents, or even gene delivery agents – although potential toxicity must still be considered, especially given the fact that their physical form draws comparison to carcinogenic asbestos fibers, according to Duncan and Gaspar. Quantum dots are also some of the most widely investigated new biomedical nanomaterials for use in tumor imaging and in theranostics (the merger of therapeutics and diagnostics).

The holy grail of nanomedicine is, of course, in vivo nanorobots that would have the ability to travel directly to problem cells and repair them on the fly at the cellular level without trauma, pain, or disfigurement. In other words, the end of disease as we know it. While we’re still decades – if not centuries – away from such a scenario, researchers at Harvard have developed a nanorobotic device made from DNA that could seek out specific cell targets and deliver molecular instruction… like telling cancer cells to kill themselves.

From an investor’s point of view, a lot of the interesting advancements in nanomedicine are coming from early-stage private companies or academic labs. For example, innovative nanomedicine leaders like Cerulean Pharma, Selecta Biosciences, and BIND Biosciences are all privately held, venture-backed companies. But the coming years should bring IPOs of numerous nanomedicine firms as they advance their science and therapeutics into clinical trials. In the meantime, one company that might be worth a look is Arrowhead Research Corporation (NASDAQ:ARWR), a clinical-stage nanomedicine company and majority owner of Calando Pharmaceuticals, which developed a breakthrough drug-delivery system called RONDEL (RNAi/oligonucleotide nanoparticle delivery) that extends the reach of RNAi therapy. While we’re not formally recommending that you go out and buy shares of ARWR, it may be worth some research on your part if you are looking to get positioned in the burgeoning field of nanomedicine.

[Breakthroughs in biotechnology have opened up a new world of investment opportunities, particularly in companies revolutionizing cancer treatment. Learn which four firms are especially worthy of a close look.]

Bits & Bytes

Google’s Terminator Glasses (gizmag)

Numerous sources are reporting that Google is developing Android-based heads-up display glasses that will be able to stream information to the wearer in real time. Anonymous Google employees familiar with the project said the glasses will go on sale to the public by the end of this year and will be priced anywhere from $250 to $600.

Cancer Breath Test (Technology Review)

A startup out of Mountain View, California claims its new breath test can spot lung cancer with 83% accuracy as well as distinguish between subtypes of the disease. This is important because existing tests for lung cancer result in many false positives. The breath test could help doctors make a more informed decision when a CT scan looks suspicious.

Faster-than-Light Neutrino Results May Be Due to Bad Cables (Wired)

In September of last year, the OPERA Collaboration at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy reported observing neutrinos that were apparently traveling faster than the speed of light, an impossibility if Einstein’s special theory of relativity is correct. But now it seems that Einstein and physicists the world over can rest easily, as a faulty cable connection may have resulted in a measurement error.

Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights (CNNMoney)

The Obama administration unveiled its consumer privacy “bill of rights” today. It aims to give web users more control over how their online personal information is collected and used. The blueprint includes seven principles to protect consumers’ digital privacy, such as the right to opt out of having their personal data collected and the right to having easily understandable policies on company’s privacy practices. Our only comment at the moment is that while we are pro-privacy, we don’t understand why the executive branch wants to get involved in a matter that should be handled by the market between companies and their customers.