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The future of biosensors and nanotechnology: A conversation with Sonia Contera

nanotechnologyImag­ine a future where dia­betes is mon­i­tored and man­aged, not with fin­ger prick blood tests and reg­u­lar insulin injec­tions, but with a small sen­sor implanted under the skin that mon­i­tors blood sugar lev­els, releases insulin as needed and com­mu­ni­cates the details to a smart phone. Wel­come to the sub­atomic world of nan­otech­nol­ogy. With devel­op­ments in the field, it is a future that we could be liv­ing in not too far from now. As I heard dur­ing my recent con­ver­sa­tion with Dr Sonia Con­tera, Co– Direc­tor of the Oxford Mar­tin Pro­gramme on Nan­otech­nol­ogy, biosen­sors are one of the most promis­ing med­ical appli­ca­tions of nan­otech­nol­ogy, and likely to be one of the first to be realised.

The field of nan­otech­nol­ogy is truly fas­ci­nat­ing, and one that has really only devel­oped over the last 10–20 years, with the inven­tion of micro­scopes that allow us to see objects at the nanoscale. Two key devel­op­ments in this field were the improve­ments in the elec­tron micro­scope and the devel­op­ment of scan­ning probe micro­scopes. Dr Con­tera was an under­grad­u­ate study­ing physics when these devel­op­ments were tak­ing place and they sparked her inter­ested in nan­otech­nol­ogy, which allowed her to apply her physics knowl­edge to biol­ogy, chem­istry and medicine.

In short, Dr Con­tera does research on basic sci­ence at the nano-scale; using tools to bet­ter under­stand the basic bio­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms and apply­ing this infor­ma­tion to med­i­cine. With a greater under­stand­ing of cell processes, cell com­mu­ni­ca­tion and dis­ease devel­op­ment it is hoped that new strate­gies to com­bat dis­ease will be iden­ti­fied. These nan­otech­nol­ogy tech­niques do not replace the chem­istry or biol­ogy tech­niques but it pro­vides a new layer of infor­ma­tion to help progress research.

Take for exam­ple the devel­op­ment of a can­cer­ous tumour; these cells are usu­ally softer than nor­mal cells and com­mu­ni­cate dif­fer­ently with the cells around them. These attrib­utes, such as cell hard­ness, can­not be detected with stan­dard chem­istry tech­niques, but they can be detected with nan­otech­nol­ogy tech­niques, which may give us new meth­ods of iden­ti­fy­ing can­cer­ous cells for deliv­ery of tar­geted drug treatments.

Improved drug deliv­ery tech­niques are not the only appli­ca­tions of nano-technology in the med­ical field; improve­ments in tis­sue regen­er­a­tion, enhanced med­ical imag­ing tech­niques and new med­ical diag­nos­tics are all expected to impact med­i­cine in the not-too-distant future.

Regen­er­a­tive med­i­cine – repair­ing or regen­er­at­ing tis­sues or organs dam­aged by dis­ease or injury – has the poten­tial to have a huge impact on med­ical treat­ment, across a num­ber of ther­apy areas. By using nan­otech­nol­ogy tech­niques to under­stand how cells com­mu­ni­cate with one another, and iden­ti­fy­ing and mea­sur­ing the mechan­i­cal sig­nals they use, it is hoped that ther­a­pies can be devel­oped that har­ness the immense pow­ers of regen­er­a­tion of the human body, just by pro­vid­ing it with the right infor­ma­tion. Take ten­don regen­er­a­tion as an exam­ple: ten­dons do not tend to heal well under nor­mal cir­cum­stances, lead­ing to the devel­op­ment of scar tis­sue. By car­ry­ing out nano-scale inves­ti­ga­tion of how ten­don cells behave, how they react to force and how they com­mu­ni­cate, it may be pos­si­ble to cre­ate ther­a­pies that pro­vide the cells with the right infor­ma­tion for ten­don regen­er­a­tion, with­out scar tis­sue formation.

Nan­otech­nol­ogy is not just mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in the med­ical field; there are sig­nif­i­cant research pro­grams into energy, food & pack­ag­ing, tex­tiles, mobile com­mu­ni­ca­tions and build­ing mate­ri­als to name a few. In fact research is being trans­lated across fields as in the devel­op­ment of bio­mimetic mate­ri­als. For exam­ple, there are pro­grams look­ing at how the body pro­duces energy using nano-scale motors (ATPase’s); in the future this may lead to the under­stand­ing needed to cre­ate mate­ri­als that can gen­er­ate power, just using body heat.

Nano-technology is already start­ing to be utilised in every­day prod­ucts. Accord­ing to the Project on Emerg­ing Nan­otech­nolo­gies web­site, over 1300 nanotechnology-enabled con­sumer prod­ucts are already avail­able includ­ing; non-stick cook­ware, self-cleaning win­dows and numer­ous prod­ucts con­tain­ing nano-scale sil­ver par­ti­cles, used for their antimi­cro­bial properties.

It seems that nan­otech­nol­ogy is going to be the future of many areas of our lives, and is already – per­haps unknow­ingly – part of some areas now, so what are the pos­si­ble bar­ri­ers to this movement?

Reg­u­la­tion of nano-materials is one of the most obvi­ous poten­tial bar­ri­ers to progress in this area; if the approach is too cau­tious, lead­ing to over­reg­u­la­tion, pro­duc­tion of nano-materials could be lim­ited. In Europe, and in the US, there are a num­ber of groups look­ing into the tox­i­c­ity of nano-materials and the evidence-based research needed to demon­strate safety. Hand in hand with address­ing these safety con­cerns is the issue of address­ing pub­lic opin­ion. A hos­tile pub­lic opin­ion, some­thing that is already appar­ent amongst some groups (and in some cases has even resulted in vio­lent actions against those involved in nano-research), could have a slow­ing effect on research pro­grams. Such is the con­cern that the pub­lic may be scared or angry about the use of nanopar­ti­cles, that some com­pa­nies do not make claim to the use of this tech­nol­ogy in their prod­ucts. Take sun tan creams for exam­ple; many use nano-sized ingre­di­ents to absorb UV light – they are safer than chem­i­cal alter­na­tives, and yet man­u­fac­tur­ers are not sell­ing the ben­e­fits of this tech­nol­ogy because of pub­lic fears, par­tic­u­larly in Europe.

The con­cerns of the gen­eral pub­lic is a dif­fi­cult area to tackle as there are para­doxes in opin­ion across prod­uct types; while sun­creams are poten­tially deemed ‘unac­cept­able’, most peo­ple are more than happy with the nan­otech­nol­ogy being used in their iPhones; nano-technology used in food pack­ag­ing is likely to be met with resis­tance, but a life-saving can­cer treat­ment using nan­otech­nol­ogy will be welcomed.

As with all research top­ics, it will be no sur­prise that another poten­tial bar­rier to break­throughs in the future is fund­ing. Nan­otech­nol­ogy fund­ing is already being restricted by will­ing­ness to invest and by the geo­graph­i­cal avail­abil­ity of funding.

Although major break­throughs are expected in med­i­cine, the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try has so far been unwill­ing to fund nan­otech­nol­ogy projects, pre­fer­ring instead to watch and wait, pick­ing up uni­ver­sity spin-offs once there is some progress in the tech­nol­ogy. Invest­ments in early research, in areas such as biosen­sors, are per­haps sur­pris­ingly, com­ing from com­pa­nies like Panasonic.

Geo­graph­i­cally, fund­ing is becom­ing increas­ingly dif­fi­cult to secure in Europe and par­tic­u­larly in the UK. This is a field in which Dr Con­tera thinks the UK could have been a world leader, with well qual­i­fied peo­ple work­ing in cen­tres of excel­lence. How­ever, with falling invest­ments in the region a ‘brain-drain’ is tak­ing place, with many experts mov­ing to Asia where the fund­ing lev­els are con­sid­er­ably bet­ter. Once Europe starts to lag behind in this area it will be dif­fi­cult to catch up. Major break­throughs will likely hap­pen, par­tic­u­larly in mate­r­ial fab­ri­ca­tion, and once this hap­pens – once nano-materials fab­ri­ca­tion is mas­tered – every­thing will change; there will be new mate­ri­als for every­thing we build.

Dr Con­tera is clearly very pas­sion­ate about this fas­ci­nat­ing area of research at a time of such great poten­tial for sig­nif­i­cant change. Her response when asked what she loves about her work cap­tures the excite­ment of this area of research “I love the topic; for the first time in his­tory we can study bio­log­i­cal sys­tems and under­stand them, pre­dict them and design things based on the knowl­edge we get from them. I love the peo­ple I work with; I work across lots of fields; biol­ogy, med­i­cine, with hos­pi­tals, with high-tech tech­nol­ogy labs in Japan, it is an inter­na­tional envi­ron­ment. I feel like I am at the begin­ning of a huge intel­lec­tual revolution”.

It is an intel­lec­tual rev­o­lu­tion which if guided, funded and researched cor­rectly, could change all of our lives for the bet­ter. Again imag­ine a future where biosen­sors have changed the prac­tice of med­i­cine, where we can use super-light mate­ri­als that won’t break and we don’t need met­als any­more, and where we have mas­tered energy gen­er­a­tion so we don’t need oil any­more. The nature of the planet we live in would change for us all. Surely that’s got to be some­thing worth invest­ing in?

David Coleiro is a found­ing part­ner at www.strategicnorth.com, and this inter­view is adapted from the book Strate­gic Tales by Strate­gic North. To request your free copy please email him at info@strategicnorth.com.

Pre­vi­ous inter­views by David Coleiro:

 

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