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No.9 Molecular Healing

September 16, 2009
by Erik Vance

The big idea: Nanotech is handing medical science a scalpel in place of a chemical sledgehammer. At the molecular (as opposed to cellular) level, chemical elements change radically. Bouncy elements become hard; sticky ones become slick. In the macro world, gold is used to fill cavities. In the nanoworld, gold can be bonded to a cancer cell and then cooked with lasers to destroy the malignant cell.

Tejal Desai, director of UCSF’s Laboratory of Therapeutic Micro and Nanotechnology, says current research is focused on delivering precise treatment and mimicking natural tissue. “In the past we said, ‘Oh, let’s throw in some cells and hope they function like they’re supposed to,'” she says. “But increasingly in biology we are finding out that structure matters.” The trick is figuring out why structures in the body work as they do. To do so, nanomedicine requires biologists to work with engineers who analyze the elements in a physics lab.

What’s next: Desai guesses upcoming breakthroughs will be in medicinal targeting because of the gazillions of dollars pouring into cancer research. By “targeting,” she means directly hitting a disease with particles (the laser-on-gold example), or using tiny couriers for precise delivery of normal medicine, all the while monitoring with miniature internal sensors.

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