Can we make Nanomedicine Sustainable?

About the author: Laura Reese is a PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Tech. Check out her profile on the VTSuN student page.

If you know how chemotherapy works, then you are probably aware that this medicine can be very harmful to the patients it is trying to save as well as the environment. Is it possible to attempt the same or better results while causing a less devastating effect to the healthy parts of a patient and using chemicals that are more environmentally friendly? Perhaps nanomedicine (the application of nanotechnology in medical science) is the solution to help the medical field go green.

The words “going green” tend to conjure up images of recycling and reducing waste in an effort to reduce emissions, lower carbon footprints, and preserve nature. For sustainable nanotechnology, this means thinking about the environment and human health at the beginning stages of the development of this new field, rather than after the fact—when toxicity and other issues may become uncovered. However, this mind set has not yet translated to nanomedicine—the use of nano-scale particles for drug delivery, treatment, and diagnostic imaging for human health. The majority of nanomedicine research focuses on solving the medical need first, such as killing cancer cells, with little to no attention paid to long-term effects. These effects include detrimental consequences for the environment as well as long-term effects to the patient, such as the possibility of forming additional tumors, causing infertility, or altering the function of certain organs.

Possible adverse health effects from long-term accumulation of nanoparticles. Image from Nanomaterials ad nanoparticles: Sources and toxicity, Biointerphases 2(2007) MR17-MR71
Possible adverse health effects from long-term accumulation of nanoparticles. Image from Nanomaterials ad nanoparticles: Sources and toxicity, Biointerphases 2(2007) MR17-MR71

A “greener” approach would involve evaluating materials that are sustainable to begin with (such as those from plant-based fibers) or would take existing promising candidates and modify their fabrication processes in an effort to make them more sustainable. There are many unknowns regarding nanomedicine products in general; including efficacy, long-term toxicity, and persistence within the human body. Because of nanoparticles’ unique ability to be transported and accumulated throughout the body, their removal from the body is not completely understood. Many nanoparticles are known to be persistent within the body for months, even years after administration. This persistence can lead to long-term toxicity. In fact, the majority of therapeutics in preclinical trials are used to treat life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. Some of these drugs have known risks and long-term toxicities, but they proceed to trials because of the nature of the disease they are addressing. This places a limit on the types of diseases that can be treated and could lead to subsequent problems down the road.

Natural products with anti-tumor potential. Image references from left to right [eofdreams.com, http://www.lifemartini.com/best-herbal-remedies-for-liver-cancer/, http://www.farmstarliving.com/az/?letter=t&item=turmeric+]
Natural products with anti-tumor potential. Image references from left to right [eofdreams.com, http://www.lifemartini.com/best-herbal-remedies-for-liver-cancer/, http://www.farmstarliving.com/az/?letter=t&item=turmeric+]
Promising developments in nanomedicine involve a shift away from harsh chemicals and drugs to a focus on natural products for medicinal use. Common household ingredients such as garlic, cinnamon and curcumin (a compound present in turmeric) have been shown to have profound anti-tumor potential. However, it is impossible to ingest enough of these foods in your everyday diet to reap the benefits.

Nanobotanical formulations, which involve encapsulating natural compounds such as herbs and essential oils into a nanoparticle carrier, are being created in order to safely deliver a more sustainable and holistic drug that is capable of treating multiple tumor types.  For more information on the types of nanoparticles being used, the most effective natural compounds, and the cancers that have been treated please refer to this article: “Essential oils loaded in Nanosystems: A Developing Strategy for a Successful Therapeutic Approach.”

Current nanotechnologies in development are barely scratching the surface of myriad possibilities in nanomedicine. Continuing sustainable approaches with both the patient and the environment in mind will allow nanomedicine to reach its full potential and truly revolutionize the fields of medicine and biotechnology.

2 thoughts on “Can we make Nanomedicine Sustainable?

  1. Interesting post. What types of nanomaterial ‘cores’ or ‘shells’ are most commonly used in nanomedicine? Are gold and silica still being used predominantly or have other materials come to be used?

  2. Gold, silver, carbon and silica seem to still be the most popular carriers as well as a variety of polymers that are biodegradable such as PLGA. There also has been a push towards more natural nanoparticle carriers such as the use of zein and chitosan. The problem with any nano carriers and gaining FDA approval is that the particles must be homogenous with a very narrow size distribution so that has limited nanoparticles translating clinically.

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