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Nanotechnology Changing the Status Quo in the Healthcare Industry

Written by: 
Jeff Morse, PhD

Medical Equipment
As the debate on healthcare reform has progressed over recent years, approaching the brink of sweeping change for better or worse, one key aspect that has not entered into these discussions is the impact of high technologies on healthcare, specifically those associated with nanotechnology. While the notion exists that one key factor to rising healthcare costs is the expense of research and innovations, recent studies have shown that this contributes only 25% to overall cost increases.  While the majority of innovations are in the areas of new  equipment, procedures, and therapies, ongoing debate must break down these added costs on the basis of direct benefits to patients and medical professionals. In the mean time, the area exhibiting the most potential to provide long term societal benefits and significantly lower the overall cost of healthcare is nanotechnology. Nanotechnologies have the potential to create a paradigm shift in the doctor-patient relationship, and ultimately change the status quo for healthcare as we know it.

With a large portion of nanotechnology research focused on biomedical applications, there have been significant breakthroughs reported in the area of nanoparticles for drug delivery and therapeutics. The controllable synthesis and scalable nanofabrication processes now available for specific nanoparticle systems and surfaces that facilitate targeted drug delivery for a range of diseases enable therapies that may minimize or eliminate hospitalizations and peripheral medical treatments (See our review on Nanoparticle-Polymer Array-Based Sensors for Biomedical Application). These technologies are best classified as nano-enabled microtechnologies and offer new capabilities such as in-home diagnostics and personalized testing that could eliminate unnecessary spending and simplify the process and application of many medical tests.

Key fundamental research in advanced technologies, materials, and sensors for biomedical applications has been funded by several government agencies, most notably the National Institute of Health (NIH), but also  DoD/DARPA, DHS, NSF, and DOE. Much of this research has been demonstrated initially for global and homeland security, where point-of-care testing and diagnostics in real time has critical implications. The application requirements within these contexts have produced hand-held devices for the detection of biological and chemical agents enabled by a range of nanomaterials. As advanced research continues, new microfabrication and integrated nanomanufacturing methodologies will inherently provide low cost, reproducible devices and products suitable for mainstream commercialization.

Research has brought these advanced devices closer to reality, however fundamental barriers associated with public perception and healthcare industry mandates must be overcome for widespread adoption of these tools. One approach to demonstrate the societal advantages of nano-enabled medical  technologies would be to implement applications targeted at simple testing and monitoring of body functions such as glucose, oxygen, blood pressure, pulse rate, etc. Although many technologies for these functions  are currently commercially available, new improved capabilities will inevitably follow, further integrating the diagnostics available within a single low-cost platform. While the public may embrace the role of advanced technologies to this end, this will ultimately lead to the next major debate in healthcare: the balance between the benefits of information provided by these diagnostics and the need to maintain personal privacy. Notwithstanding this important issue, nanotechnology will surely contribute towards and play an importantrole in the healthcare debate.

  1. Kotov, NA. Politics and Nanotechnology in the Healthcare Industry. ACSNano 2009;3(10):2855-2856. DOI:10.1021/nn9013609 .
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