We’re used to seeing robots as large constructs that can either create or deconstruct — self-driving cars, robot-assisted surgeries and even your cell phone all house ever-changing technology. These types of tech are big enough to see, touch or hold in your hand.

What happens when you take technology and shrink it down smaller than the human eye can see? You get nanotechnology, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the future of health care will likely rely on this microscopic technology.

Nanotechnology is already making its first forays into the pharmaceutical industry, one microscopic step at a time. The biggest — or smallest, if you prefer — possible application for nanotechnology is drug delivery. The major problem with traditional drug delivery is that it is systemic — even the most targeted treatments also affect the surrounding tissues, and in many cases, the rest of the body. Traditional cancer treatments provide the most dramatic demonstration of this — radiation and chemotherapy damage patients’ immune systems, cause hair loss and generally lower quality of life during treatment.

Systemic drug delivery can have severe detrimental effects on the patient, creating the need for targeted drug delivery — which is something nanotechnology can deliver, in theory at least.

Buckyballs, the colloquial name for Buckminsterfullerenes, are made up of 60 carbon atoms organised in a sphere. These spheres can suspend a single molecule of a substance, such as water or a drug that needs to be delivered, in their centres. They’re nontoxic to the human body, and the carbon atoms create a hydrophobic inner surface, which prevents the carbon from interacting with anything that might be introduced into the centre of the buckyball.

Once the ball gets infused with the drug it needs to deliver, a simple, noninvasive magnetic or electrical field can “drive” it to a targeted location.

Right now, Buckyballs have only been successful in lab simulations, but they could potentially change the way we treat things like cancer, heart disease and even old age. The therapy doesn’t even have to be applied internally — there has also been research by Amy S. Paller and Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University on using nanoparticles to deliver gene therapy through the skin.

Normally, particles are too large to pass through the epidermis, the top layers of the skin. This new therapy relies on agglomerations of nucleic acids that are roughly 1,000 times smaller than the size of a human hair. These tiny molecules can penetrate the layers of skin and deliver gene therapy.

This delivery method could potentially become a treatment for ageing — helping lengthen the telomeres in your cells that determine the age of the cells themselves — in a way that is easy to apply at home.

Challenges and potential problems

Nanotechnology is still in its infancy, but that hasn’t stopped both professionals and casual observers alike from looking at the potential downsides of nanotechnology in health care. Most of these problems won’t manifest until this technology makes it into human trials, but potential problems that could occur might include:

  • Nanocell control — It may be difficult or even impossible to control the cells once they’ve been injected into the human body
  • Targeting problems — Once the cells are injected, it may be tough to get them to target the malignant cells, rather than healthy ones. Targeting will need to be as close to perfect as possible before these cells can be loaded with medications or therapies to be delivered to a patient’s cells.

As the technology progresses, microscopic machines could be the next logical step. These nanomachines, used in future applications, present their own problems, including:

  • Hacking — Networked machines are always vulnerable to hacking, and the machines could potentially be turned away from their programmed task, causing harm to the patient.
  • Lost hardware — Disabled or malfunctioning nanomachines could become lost in the body, creating hazards
  • Nanotoxicology — This is an emerging field that was specifically created to study the potential side effects of introducing ultrafine particles into the human body.

Healthcare isn’t getting bigger — it’s getting smaller, and nanotechnology is probably only five to ten years away from changing the way we treat things like cancer and heart disease.

Megan Ray Nichols is STEM writer and blogger