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August 28, 2005

More-with-less Innovation: A tiny thing to cure big diseases!

Will a nano-particle cure your cancer, fix your damaged genes, restore your lost youth, and extend your life?

Traditional drugs are a mess. They’re designed to fix specific diseases that usually reside in specific parts of the body. But when you pop a pill or take a shot the drug doesn’t go to only where the disease is. It goes everywhere – to diseased tissues and healthy tissues alike. This is like using a sledgehammer to drive a finishing nail. And the result is frequent side-effects, some of which can be as bad as the disease itself.

But the problem doesn’t end there. To mangle a metaphor . . . a sledgehammer cannot fit through the eye of a needle. Many diseases, such as cancer, reside inside our cells, and many chemical compounds that might serve to treat these ailments are simply too big to pass through our cellular membranes. Scientists have attempted to deal with this problem by engineering viruses to infect and treat cellular problems.

Viruses are experts at getting inside cells. This is how they reproduce. They penetrate our cells and use your cellular machinery to make copies of themselves. Indeed, much of your genetic material is junk left behind by ancient viruses that infected your long dead ancestors. Viruses are clever little devils. And using engineered versions of them to treat diseases, and replace broken genes, is a clever idea.

But even this approach has problems. It remains very difficult to predict and control what these viruses will do once they’re inside you. And (as with traditional drugs) they have a tendency to go everywhere, including places where they’re neither needed nor wanted. Viruses are also relatively large, even though they are still very, very small. And many potential treatments might become feasible if something even smaller than viruses could be created to get inside cells in a highly targeted way.

That “something smaller” may be at hand. Scientists are making breakthroughs with nano-particles – specifically designed chemical compounds much smaller than traditional drugs or viruses, that can go into specific cells to do highly specific things, like turn genes on or off, alter genes, or induce cell death. The implications of this are profound.

  • Nano-particles could be injected into a cancer tumor, striking only the cells in that tumor, inducing cell death, and leaving the rest of your body alone. This would be a magic-bullet for cancer. It would end the painful and toxic practice of traditional chemotherapy, which goes everywhere in your body, and kills healthy cells and cancerous cells alike.
  • Nano-particles could be used to break-up accumulated toxins and junk by-products from cellular metabolism – a kind of “spring cleaning” for your cells that would give them a youthful glow again.
  • Nano-particles could be created to target and destroy specific viruses, like HIV.
  • Nano-particles could make true genetic engineering a reality, allowing us to restore our cellular genomes to their youthful condition.
    Does this breakthrough depend on government funding? No. The first steps were taken by a private company, Dow, and additional research is being assisted by the Bill Gates Foundation.

    Increasingly, good things come in small packages as the voluntary sector constantly innovates to do more-and-more with less-and-less.

    You can learn more about this breakthrough here.

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