Small science, big opportunities

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN

Published September 10, 2006

University scientists are doing big things in the science of the small, and it could change how and how long you will live.

The University hosted the first Nanotechnology Symposium at the Biomedical Science Research Building Friday.

Nanoparticles are only a few billionths of a meter wide, but their applications to the medical field are widespread.

University Prof. Mark Banaszak Holl, a founding member of the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and Biological Sciences, recognizes the monumental potential in nanotechnology, the process of taking nanoparticles and assembling them into larger structures.

Banaszak Holl is investigating how the similarities between a dendrimer - type of synthetic nanoparticle - and naturally occurring biological particles could benefit the study of medicine.

A dendrimer is somewhat like a cellular Trojan horse. When a cell recognizes a dendrimer that resembles a sugar molecule or something equally appealing, "the cell says hello, and brings it inside," Banaszak Holl said.

Once inside, the dendrimer releases a package that wouldn't have otherwise made it into the cell.

The gifts that the nanoparticles bear would differ depending on the mission. If a dendrimer is synthesized to seek out and bind with a specific cell in order to alert a researcher of its presence, the payload might take the form of fluorescent tags. If the goal is to infiltrate and kill a cancer cell, a lethal chemical could drop from the dendrimer's belly and lay waste to the unsuspecting cell.

Banaszak Holl said nanotechnology could become an extremely useful tool for screening, diagnosing and treating cancer. Some predict this technology, in addition to the growing arsenal of medical tools used to fight cancerous disease, could extend the human lifespan by up to 40 years.

Extraordinary health benefits may exist in the world of nanotechnology, but so may unforeseen risks.

Banaszak Holl compared developing nanotechnologies with the introduction of pesticides. Like the harmful effects of pesticides not apparent for several links down the food chain, adverse effects of nanotech may go unforeseen.

Banaszak Holl, whose current project explores the potential of some dendrimers to behave like cholera toxin by tearing holes in cell membranes, said he appreciates the foresight being exercised by those doing nanotech research.

"I think we're doing a much better job addressing the obstacles," than in the past, he said.

There is still an enormous amount of work to be done before emerging nanotechnologies can be put to practical use