Health Tech

Nanoparticles On My Mind

By KIM BELLARD

Nanoparticles are everywhere!  By that I mean, of course, that there seems to be a lot of news about them lately, particularly in regard to health and healthcare.   But, of course, literally they could be anywhere and everywhere, which helps account for their potential, and their potential danger.

Let’s start with one of the more startling developments: a team at the University of Miami’s College of Engineering, led by Professor Sakhrat Khizroev, believes it has figured out a way to use nanoparticles to “talk” to the brain without wires or implants.  They use “a novel class of ultrafine units called magnetoelectric nanoparticles (MENPs)” to penetrate the blood-brain barrier. 

“Once the MENPs are inside the brain and positioned next to neurons, we can stimulate them with an external magnetic field, and they in turn produce an electric field we can speak to, without having to use wires,” Professor Khizroev explained.  A special magnetic helmet would communicate with the MENPs, in real-time. 

Other efforts, such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink, have been looking at using implants to achieve the brain-computer interface, but Dr. Khizroev is skeptical of this kind of approach:

Other efforts have used external instruments like microelectrodes to try to solve the mysteries of the brain, but because of its complexity and difficulty in accessing, such methods can only go so far.  There are 80 billion neurons in the human brain, so imagine how difficult it would be to attach 80 billion microelectrodes to access every single neuron. The only way to truly tap in is wirelessly—through nanotechnology.

Professor Khizroev has been working on the technology for over a decade, and has received funding from Darpa as part of its Next Generation Non-surgical Neurotechnology (N3) program (also known as BrianSTORMs), the goal of which is “to develop high-performance, bi-directional brain-machine interfaces for able-bodied service members.”    The team got Phase II funding last November in order to build working devices. 

“Right now, we’re just scratching the surface,” Dr. Khizroev says.  “We can only imagine how our everyday life will change with such technology.”  Some of what he does imagine, though, is:

We will learn how to treat Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and even depression. Not only could it revolutionize the field of neuroscience, but it could potentially change many other aspects of our health care system. 

Last December, a Battelle team lead by Ping Liang, a former research partner of Dr. Khizroev, also received Phase II funding, for their work using magnetoelectric nanotransducers (MEnTs).  “Our current data suggests that we can non-surgically introduce MEnTs into the brain for subsequent bi-directional neural interfacing,” Patrick Ganzer, a Battelle researcher and the principal investigator on the project, said at the time.

Lest anyone think this is either an easy or a solved problem, Darpa points out: “N3 researchers are working to develop solutions that address challenges such as the physics of scattering and weakening of signals as they pass through skin, skull, and brain tissue, as well as designing algorithms for decoding and encoding neural signals that are represented by other modalities such as light, acoustic, or electro-magnetic energy.” 

These challenges kind of put Facebook’s new muscle movement-reading wristband in perspective, don’t they? 

But that’s not all the nanoparticle news from just this week.  In no particular order:

  • Researchers from Cleveland Clinic and Chungbuk National University tested a COVID-19 vaccine (on ferrets) using antigens attached to nanoparticles.  The researchers concluded: “This approach has proven to have higher efficacy at a lower dose than traditional protein subunit vaccines,” and pointed out that it does not require cold storage. 
  • Another research team, from Scripps and Temple, also tested using nanoparticles to deliver antigens for COVID-19, using three self-assembling protein nanoparticle (SApNP) platforms.  They concluded: “our study provides promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates for evaluation in clinical trials.”
  • A research team at the University of Manchester used nanoparticles to discover previously unseen blood markers: “The nano-tool we developed allowed us to see deeper into the blood proteome, identifying proteins of interest that are directly associated with neurodegeneration processes in the brain, among thousands of other blood-circulating molecules.”  This might allow earlier and more definitive diagnoses of Alzheimer’s.
  • A research team at the University of Science and Technology China are testing “acid-responsive nanoparticles composed solely of membrane-disruptive macromolecules” to treat pancreatic cancer.  The nanoparticles were more effective in penetrating the stroma surrounding the cancer cells. 
  • Russian and Israeli researchers “have developed hybrid nanostructured particles that can be magnetically guided to the tumor, tracked by their fluorescence and pushed to release the drug on demand by ultrasound. This technology can help make cancer chemotherapy more targeted.” 
  • Another Chinese research team is using nanoparticles to deliver antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) for the treatment of deep infections.  Normally AMPs are too toxic, but they believe “the development of intelligent nanocarriers can achieve selective activation and active target in the infectious sites, thus improving the therapeutic efficacy against bacterial infection and reducing the toxicity against normal tissues.”
  • An international team of researchers assert: “The potential of nanotechnology in fighting this deadly disease [COVID-19] has not only been realized in context of developing a nano-vaccine but by delivering the nano-based anti-viral agents.  They propose several “nano-carriers” for various COVID-19 treatments, using “nanoencapsulation.” 
  • Spanish researchers have been able to observe autonomous nanobots in vivo – inside the bladders of a living mouse — using Positron Emission Tomography (PET).  “The possibility to monitor their activity within the body and the fact that they display a more homogeneous distribution could revolutionize the way we understand nanoparticle-based drug delivery and diagnostic approaches,” one of the researchers said. 

Again, that’s just this week, and only health-related nano news. 

I’m no expert on nanoparticles, or any kind of nanotechnology.  I understand that the technology has a long way to go yet.  I realize that there are risks, included unintended health effects, to using nanotechnology.  All that being said, too much of our health treatments are “shotgun” approaches that often cause as much collateral damage as beneficial impacts.  Nanoparticles offer the promise of “rifle” approaches that offer precise targeting – like using smart bombs instead of carpet bombing.   

Within my lifetime, and hopefully within the decade, we’ll have nano-delivered drugs that will greatly increase their efficacy.  We’ll have nanobots swimming around in us, for a variety of therapeutic purposes.  And we should have nanoparticle mediated brain-computer interfaces too.

Exciting stuff.   

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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