Nanotechnology may help regrow damaged spinal cords

Nanotechnology is a major buzzword in the media these days. There are people who swear up and down that it can enable a revolution in nearly every aspect of society, and others who scream that it’s the metaphorical sky falling down upon our heads. In some respects its both, but I believe that the revolutionary aspects of nanotech with respect to health care, materials, and electronics alone are such that we’d be fools not to conduct the basic research. reported an amazing nanotech breakthrough by Dr. Samuel I. Stupp, director of the Institute of BioNanotechnology in Medicine at Northwestern University. Dr. Stupp experimented using specially designed nanotech fibers on mice with spinal cord injuries and discovered that they regained the ability to use their hind legs 6 weeks after the injections. Researchers at other universities associated with Dr. Stupp’s team are finding that similarly-designed nanotech help repair heart attack damage and the brain damage caused by Parkinson’s Disease.

Nanotech treatments for cancer are already in process. Some of them are based on delivering chemotherapy drugs selectively to tumors in order to reduce the toxicity of the drugs to the patient, while others are designed so that they absorb microwaves and effectively burn the tumor away with minimal damage to surrounding tissues. And one of the more mundane emerging applications of nanotech is nearly instantaneous and highly accurate diagnostic testing for bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Research into building custom proteins using molecular “Legos” has the potential to yield any number of medical breakthroughs, including drugs customized for every patient.

We need to be careful – until we have access to testing technologies and simulation systems that give us the ability to accurately predict the health effects of nanotech in all its forms, we are in some sense playing with fire. But so long as we’re careful, the potential advantages nanotech brings to medicine alone make research absolutely necessary. And with a little luck and a lot of work, ten years from now we’ll be able to effectively cure a severed spinal cord and Parkinson’s Disease.

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  1. Despite the now famous warnings of dytopian scenarios arising from GNR run amok (one thinks of Bill Joy’s article for “Wired”), this does present thrilling news on the medical front. Let’s hope that medical science proceeds with deliberate speed and appropriate caution – and that the results fulfill the promise they suggest.