Nanotechnology Meets Biotechnology:
Science Fiction or Reality?
When nanotechnology meets biotechnology, the possibilities are compelling. Imagine particles one billionth of a
meter injected into a cancer-ridden body to deliver a payload of medicine designed to kill malicious cells.
"The Holy Grail will be using nanotechnology for therapeutic uses where you can target and circulate time-released
active agents," says Daniel Hammer, Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering at Penn Engineering who
leads one of EMTM's newest courses, Introduction to Biotechnology and Bionanotechnology.
But picturing the intersection of nanotechnology and biotechnology is one thing. The hard part is getting there.
Dawn Bonnell, Professor of Materials Science and Bioengineering and Director of the Nano/Bio Interface Center at
the University of Pennsylvania, says that although nanotechnology has many potential applications in life sciences,
it's too early to predict when commercial developments will arrive. "There's not one answer (to what the commercial
possibilities are) since nanotech cuts across all of society," says Bonnell, who also teaches Nanotechnology at EMTM.
"Some applications will emerge in this decade, but some of it is 25 years away."
Nanotechnology is a broad term that encompasses anything done making semiconductors, diagnostic tests or advanced
fabrics on a nanoscale between 1 and 100 nanometers. "Nanotechnology brings a whole array of different disciplines
together such as physics, material sciences and biotechnology, for a common goal," says Ben Janeiro (EMTM'06), Product
Manager, Silicones and Metal Organics, at Gelest Inc. and a current EMTM student. Gelest makes the materials
silanes, silicones and chemical compounds of germanium, tin and lead used in adhesives, biotechnology and
nanotechnology products and superconductors.
Jay Armstrong (EMTM'95), Director in Benefit Risk Management, Johnson & Johnson PRD (Pharmaceutical Research &
Development), adds that nanotechnology involves more than just creating things on a small scale. "Nanotechnology
is the natural amalgamation of all fields of science and technology in understanding and manipulating matter on
an ever-smaller scale," says Armstrong. "But it's important to remember that it's more than just scale
nanotechnology enables the development of new materials and systems with novel properties."
Needless to say, the vision of nanotechnology's potential has sparked "a lot of interest in the drug industry,"
says another member of the EMTM faculty, Scott Diamond, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,
who introduced a new course this Spring in Business and Biotechnology. "You can envision many applications in
the future," Diamond says. "In the next five years there will be some kind of drug delivery scenario with
While EMTM faculty, students and alumni agree that nanotechnology has promising applications for biotechnology,
they also note that there's a gap today between the science fiction and reality, even though developments are
progressing in research labs. "It's an exciting time," says Diamond. "But you still have to spend the time
figuring out what's reality and what's science fiction. It's still early."
It's so early that nanotechnology hasn't garnered much venture capital investment relative to other industries.
According to research firm Lux Research, venture capitalists poured $480 million into nanotechnology startups
such as Nanomix and Nanosys in 2005, but that's a relatively small sum. After all, PricewaterhouseCoopers put
total venture capital spending at $21.7 billion for 2005 and the life sciences industry defined as
biotechnology and medical devices industry raked in $6 billion alone.
Nevertheless, nanotechnology is making progress on the biotech front.
Typically in developing markets such as nanotechnology, the first applications in biotechnology are in diagnostics,
says Hammer. Companies like Agilent, Nanogen and Affymetrix are using nanotechnology to build arrays to help
diagnose multiple ailments. In the next decade, drug delivery systems are likely to use nanotechnology, as will
Today, companies are creating "labs on a chip" to sample cells and diagnose disease. These "in vitro" applications,
which are used outside of the body, don't require approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says Hammer.
Janeiro says the diagnostic market is maturing and companies like Affymetrix and Biosite are developing new
technologies. However, these advances are what Janeiro calls "a series of small bangs" in specialized areas.
Add these developments over time and they could result in a big bang spurt of nanotechnology in biotechnology.
Of course, diagnostic developments only go so far to further biotech innovation. The next evolution will be
using nanotechnology for "in vivo" uses such as implanting particles in biological tissue to deliver medicine,
destroy tumors and stimulate immune responses. Among the biotechnology applications for nanoparticles, says Hammer,
are carbon nanotubes that can be inserted into tissue and small "shells" that can carry payloads designed to
stimulate the immune system or deliver medicine.
In the future, nanomachines that act as biological systems working together could carry out tasks such as
delivering medicine, altering genes and attacking cancer cells. "These would be nanosize assemblies that
would perform biological tasks," explains Hammer, adding that nanotechnology could mimic biological systems
such as viruses. "These would carry out in vivo tasks, be able to move from one place to another and sense
And ultimately, these "mesoscopic" machines could bind to DNA and RNA, alter them and then disassemble and
become inactive, says Hammer.
Diamond notes that nanotechnology could also have a big role in genetic engineering and drug trials, where
nanotechnology could find molecules most likely to be affected by a particular medicine.
Medical implants are another sector ripe for nanotechnology use. Bonnell sees promise in using nanotechnology
to make better biomedical implants such as a small active pacemaker.
Mike Dugery (EMTM'02), CEO of SonoMedix, an early-stage medical device company, says nanoparticles could have
a wide range of uses in everything from heart implants such as stents to knee and hip replacements. These
particles could bind to local tissue and deliver drugs, tag cells and make affected areas more easily seen
on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. According to Dugery, companies ranging from heart device companies
like Boston Scientific and Medtronic to orthopedic implant firms such as Zimmer are likely to use nanotechnology.
"By binding to specific cells, nanotechnology could allow for sharp shooting of problems," says Dugery.
Like many companies, Johnson & Johnson is exploring the potential impact of nanotechnology on its business. Jay
Armstrong (EMTM'95), J&J Director of Pharmaceutical Research and Development, surveys the landscape for nanotech.
Scaffolds to promote tissue growth
Tissue engineering of bone, cartilage, skin, arteries, nerves
Improved mechanical properties for implants
Coatings for Implants
Improve osteointegration, faster fixation
Identifying and quantifying rare events
Evaluating the impact of anti-cancer agents in treatment
and clinical trials
Technologies for localized tumor ablation
Targeting for minimal collateral damage
Nanocapsules, liposomes, targeted delivery
Tools for Drug Discovery and Drug Development
Micro and nano fluidics
Biomarkers & bar codes
Nano-milling for solubility/stabilization
Multifunctional Therapeutics: Combining...
Responsive to physical or chemical changes
Improved moisture and thermal handling properties
Based on physical (vs chemical) properties of materials
Self-cleaning, more versatile
For delivery of therapeutic agents
Increased bioavailability of active ingredients
Change in response to environment
The initial challenge for merging nano- and biotechnology will be getting FDA approval. While the FDA has procedures
to gauge the safety of implantable devices and the effects of foreign material in the body, nanotechnology will be
closely watched, says Hammer, who adds that FDA approval is not insurmountable.
For instance, the MRI required approval and that uses nanoparticles to help map areas of the body. "There is a template
here to get approval," says Hammer.
Diamond adds that the FDA is also already measuring liver toxicity and other problems that may arise from having
polymers and other materials in the body, so in theory regulators should be equipped to approve products that merge
biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Bonnell, however, says the regulatory landscape isn't clear. A big regulatory issue, she says, will be measuring
the size of particles and determining at what levels they become toxic. Meanwhile, there are likely to be multiple
agencies monitoring nanotechnology to watch everything from the medical to the environmental impacts of using
Among the safety issues to consider, Dugery notes that nanoparticles will be so small that it's unclear how they will
be passed through the body. "If they don't pass, they could potentially build up to toxic levels," says Dugery.
Another challenge could be manufacturing these particles. For instance, mass producing nanomachines that would focus
on specific issues may not be cost effective, says Hammer. Instead, individual components of biologic nanotechnology
machines could be mass produced and the assembly of various parts would be customized.
Manufacturing would also bring environmental concerns to fore. "What happens if nanoparticles are accidentally released
in the plant and get into the lungs of worker?" asks Dugery. "Decades ago, few people thought asbestos was harmful to
humans. Processing and handling methods will have to meet thoughtfully developed standards."
Fortunately, there's a lot of time to work out those issues. While molecular nanomachines seeking and destroying cancer
cells sounds impressive, those developments will take time and money.
Predictions vary on the time horizon for biotechnology to reap the benefits of nanotechnology. According to Hammer,
the nanomachines he envisions are at least 10 years away; nanotechnology enabled imaging applications to find and
diagnose molecules in the body are two to three years away; and therapeutic uses to fix those identified problems
are roughly five years away.
Dugery adds that most of the nanotechnology advancements for medical devices are in the development stage, but that
preclinical work is being done now to create stents, filters and closure devices that utilize nanotechnology. His best
guess is that these devices could go commercial in five to 10 years.
The fact that these nanotechnology biological products will take time to develop makes it hard to pick corporate winners
and losers, especially considering startups are still emerging. It's also unclear whether the funding will be available
to startups with big nanotechnology dreams. "The challenge in this business is that there are safety protocols that
haven't been worked through and a lot of nanotechnology companies are going to take at least 7 years to develop something
commercial," explains Bonnell. "VCs (venture capitalists) aren't going to wait around that long."
Janeiro agrees. "Many startups will have a tough time getting to the phase where they can get FDA approval," he says.
"The costs are astronomical."
But for those startups that do succeed, and for larger firms with deeper R&D pockets, the potential rewards are enticing
enough to continue the hunt for the Holy Grail in the growing field of bionanotechnology.
“The Holy Grail will be using nanotechnology for therapeutic uses where you can target and circulate time-released
Professor of Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering
(EMTM course: Introduction to Biotechnology and Bionanotechnology)
“There's not one answer (to what the commercial possibilities are) since nanotech cuts across all of society. Some
applications will emerge in this decade, but some of it is 25 years away.”
Professor of Materials Science and Bioengineering
Director, Penn Nano/Bio Interface Center
(EMTM course: Nanotechnology)
“It's an exciting time. But you still have to spend the time figuring out what's reality and what's science fiction.
It's still early.”
Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
(EMTM courses: Business and Biotechnology; Drug Discovery)
“What happens if nanoparticles are accidentally released in the plant and get into the lungs of worker? Decades ago,
few people thought asbestos was harmful to humans. Processing and handling methods will have to meet thoughtfully developed
Mike Dugery (EMTM'02)
Co-Founder and Managing Partner
“The challenge in this business is that there are safety protocols that haven't been worked through and a lot of
nanotechnology companies are going to take at least 7 years to develop something commercial. VCs aren't going to wait
around that long.”
“Many startups will have a tough time getting to the phase where they can get FDA approval. The costs are astronomical.”
Ben Janeiro (EMTM'06)
Product Manager, Silicones and Metal Organics