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5 Big Advances in Small Clinical Technology

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, August 10, 2010

Here are just five of the many ways smaller medical technology is getting better.

1. Nanomaterials
Engineered nanomaterials—about 100,000 times smaller than a single strand of hair—represent a significant breakthrough in material design and development for industry and consumer products, including diagnosis, imaging and drug delivery technologies. So much so that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, has put $13 million in grants over a two-year period to increase understanding the potential health, safety, and environmental issues related to the tiny particles The NIEHS awards are funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to develop better methods to assess exposure and health effects associated with nanomaterials and develop reliable tools and approaches to determine the impact on biological systems and health outcomes of engineered materials, according to NIEHS.

There’s still plenty to learn about nanomaterials and gauging their safety will also be a priority of the grants. “We currently know very little about nanoscale materials' effect on human health and the environment," said Linda Birnbaum, PhD, director of the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), an interagency program for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Nanomaterials come in so many shapes and sizes, with each one having different chemical properties and physical and surface characteristics. They are tricky materials to get a handle on. The same properties that make nanomaterials so potentially beneficial in drug delivery and product development are some of the same reasons we need to be cautious about their presence in the environment."

2. Particle toxicology
Can nano-sized particles travel from the nose to the brain? That’s one of the questions that The Society of Toxicology (SOT) researchers are exploring. Particle toxicology has come a long way from revealing the prominent role for coal and silicainduced diseases in the early 20th century, according to SOT. Investigations have gone from asbestos fibers to manmade mineral fibers, ambient particulate matter, and engineered nanoparticles. The focus too has grown from the traditional target organ, the respiratory system, to extra-pulmonary organs such as the heart, vascular system, and the brain. The connection between the nose and the brain and the transport, in particular, of nanosized particles to the olfactory bulb, was described early on to explain how poliovirus infection progressed. Research that is more recent suggests that man-made nanosized particles can access the same pathway.

Ongoing research seeks to better understand if and how nanosized poorly soluble particles get into the brain, the properties of the particles that accumulate in the brain (e.g. size, solubility, and reactivity), how the particles get cleared from brain tissue, and how particles might induce adverse effects such as neurodegenerative disease.

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