In part two of our technologies in heart care series we look at the advancements of Nanomedicine…
How big is a nanometer? A hundredth of a meter? A thousandth of a meter? Not even close… One nanometer is actually equivalent to one billionth of a meter (10-9). This means that just one sheet of your favourite Sunday newspaper is approximately 100,000 nanometers thick – positively enormous in the nanoscale world!
Studying at this minute scale has only been possible since the 1980’s, but it has enabled scientists to see, and sometimes control, individual atoms and molecules. The ability to manipulate at this scale has opened up huge opportunities for researchers across all areas of science, from electronics to materials to chemistry.
One other area that is starting to see the effects of our newfound expertise in nanoparticles is medicine, with the dawning of a new age of research and treatment termed nanomedicine. In this instalment of our series taking a look at the ‘technologies transforming heart care’, we will get a snapshot into some of the ways in which nanomedicine could change the way doctors treat our hearts.
One of the key advantages of nanomedicine over other forms therapy is the fact that nanoparticles can be manipulated to deliver ‘targeted therapy’. Targeted therapy involves the delivery of drugs directly to the cells that have been affected, achieving maximum benefit for the patient without a loss of drug concentration throughout the body.
In heart care, this could be used to treat injured heart tissue in individuals with cardiomyopathy or following a heart attack, or to even shrink plaques that have formed within arteries without the need for complicated and potentially risky invasive surgery.
Tissue engineering involves the building or growing of cells in the lab in order to mimic the growth of tissues identical to those that we have, and grow ourselves, within the body.
Some teams of researchers have begun developing heart ‘patches’ made up of nanofibers with stem cells (non-specialised cells that can develop into any type of specialised cell e.g. heart cell) grown directly onto them, to closely mimic the organisation of heart cells in the body. These can then be implanted into the heart to repair damaged sections.
Techniques to grow and improve the functioning of these patches are rapidly developing and could provide a new opportunity to restore functioning to damaged areas of the heart in the future.
Magnetic nanoparticles are also increasingly important for imaging of not just the heart, but also other areas of the body. In particular, when used in MRI scans these nanoparticles can increase the contrast on images, meaning greater detail can be seen.
In addition, nanoparticles can be used as tracers to visualise specific medical conditions and learn more about the health of the blood vessel system, as well as to track the movement of certain molecules around the body.
Greater opportunities for imaging will give medical professionals greater understanding and enable earlier diagnosis of potential health problems.
Who knew such tiny particles could have such a huge effect on our bodies? As a relatively new area of research there is still a lot to be learnt about nanotechnology and how it can be applied to the treatment of our hearts. Although there will undoubtedly be many obstacles in the road, we’re definitely excited to see what is to come!