While the rest of the world was taking a few weeks off over Xmas, the elves in PlayGens’ grotto were busy putting the finishing touches to the nanomedicine module of Nanomission. If you ever wondered what nanomedicine would really look like then you can download the demo here.
While it’s a cracking good game, there is as serious side to it and you will learn quite a bit about the nanoworld such as
1. Dispelling the myth of small mechanical robots in the body.
Much of the early ideas about nanotechnology were based on the idea that simple mechanical structures could be built at the nanoscale using atoms as building blocks. These structures would, in theory, be able to operate very quickly and with high precision. However, many of the proposed devices would not actually work on this scale as chemical forces, viscosity and Brownian motion are the dominant forces in the nanoworld, rather than friction and gravity which we all are more accustomed to in our daily lives.
As a result, designing any machine to operate inside the body requires a rather different approach from simply shrinking a submarine to the size of a pinhead as happened in the film “Fantastic Voyage.” If we were somehow able to do this, then the occupants of the craft would be reduced to the size of a few cells, and result in the loss of almost all of their neurons.
2. Learning from nature when designing nanomedicine.
Rather than reducing our world to the nanoscale, many scientists are now realizing that the best nanotechnologist is in fact Mother Nature. Through three billion years of evolution, life has evolved a huge array of complex devices such as DNA, viruses and cells which allow us to store data and repair our damaged parts. Someone who loses a finger is still able to function normally, but pulling a leg off a chip inside your computer could result in the whole machine becoming useless. As a result, scientists are now learning from nature’s nanotech to design devices that work in a similar, but far simpler way. Rather than introducing new machines such as submarines and robots, scientists are mimicking nature for delivery of new anti cancer drugs by the use of structures such as vesicles which move with a flagella rather than a propeller (which is what bacteria do owing to the viscosity of liquids on this scale) or by locking the toxic materials inside an outwardly benign structure that does not trigger the body’s immune systems, keeping the drug from harming healthy cells until the payload is delivered.
3. Being inside the human body.
The human body is a hostile place for things that shouldn’t be there. The body is very sensitive to anything that it sees as a foreign body and deals with them very efficiently. One of the biggest challenges for drug manufacturers is to deliver compounds to the site where they are needed without the immune system or the body’s other defense mechanisms neutralizing or altering the compound.
4. How nanomedicine may be used to cure cancer.
There are hundreds of different types of cancer, so an overall cure is not likely anytime soon, but nanomedicine will allow more effective treatment of many types of cancer by targeting compounds more effectively. The reason why a number of very effective anti cancer compounds cannot be used is because they will also kill healthy cells or they may be altered by the human body before they get to where they are needed, so scientists are finding ways of wrapping them up inside other structures, in this case vesicles, and only releasing them at the site of the cancer.