When nanotech meets biotech

When you see the word "nanotechnology," what images come to mind? Drexlerian molecular machines that can build anything? Tiny "Fantastic Voyage"-style submarines zapping cancer cells? Dystopian, out-of-control nanobots out of some Chrichton-esque nightmare? If you're in the financial sector, you might simply think of a hype-filled bubble that briefly ballooned and burst years ago. The pattern here is that while nanotechnology captures the imagination, it is not yet taken seriously--by neither scientist nor general public--as something that has "arrived."

However, something funny happened on the way to molecular machines. Nanotechnology started getting real. And it's been doing so relatively quietly, without hype. That's because nanotechnology is not any one technology at all. It's an enabling technology. It is embedded inside many of the biotechnology breakthroughs you read about every day on this site--sometimes called nanotech by name, but more often not. Nanoscale materials are being developed as drug-delivery devices, contrast agents, even sent into biotech's final frontier: the blood-brain barrier. At the nanoscale, therapeutics can be tailored to individual diseases, and can pinpoint and destroy cancer cells while leave surrounding healthy cells alone.

But nanotech is not only about size, but also about how nanoscale particles are engineered. Things like coatings and even surface charges, or  a therapeutic drug along for the ride, can have an impact on the way a nanoparticle behaves inside the body. Size matters, yes, but it's not the only property that makes nanotechnology a potential game changer for biotech.

Here are eight ways nanotech represents the next stage of biotech. The list is not complete, and neither are the examples they contain. But this should give an indication of how closely nanotech and biotech have already taken their relationship. If you have other examples or thoughts, please contribute to the comments section.

1. Carbon Nanotubes
2. Nanocrystals
3. Nanoshells
4. Gene silencing delivery
5. Nanotox
6. Magnetic nanoparticles
7. Multitasking nanomaterials
8. The blood-brain barrier

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