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Nanobiotechnology October 2020 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Ivona Bradley

Nanomaterials and Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine

Why is this topic significant?

The traditional-Chinese-medicine industry seeks improved means of growing herbs and botanicals. Some research about improving crop yields of TCM plants makes use of nanomaterials.

Description

Sophora alopecuroides has thousands of years of tradition as a Chinese herbal medicine and is sought after by many individuals because of its reportedly wide range of pharmacological activities. However, salt stress and other factors can severely affect plant growth and crop yield. A team led by researchers at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden investigated the use of single-wall carbon nanohorns and zinc oxide nanoparticles on plant growth and salt tolerance in Sophora alopecuroides seedlings. Foliar spraying of nanohorns increased the root length, root fresh weight, and leaf soluble-sugar content in the seedlings; nanoparticles foliar spraying increased root fresh weight, leaf dry weight, and soluble-sugar content. Metabolomics profiling indicated that the use of nanohorns and nanoparticles mediated salt-stress responses in the plant seedlings and increased their salt tolerance. The researchers plan to use the nanomaterials during the full life cycle of the plant.

Implications

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which uses hundreds of herbs and botanicals, is a burgeoning market both in China and in Western countries. For many years, genetic engineering has been the scientific method of choice for increasing crop yield. However, this process is laborious. So far, the researchers have used nanomaterials to increase the crop yield of one herb, but potential exists to extend the practice to other herbs and botanicals that play important roles in TCM. If nanomaterials were to become a routine part of increasing the crop yields of plants in use in TCM, the market could be enormous. A late 2017 report from an agency of the government of China indicated that TCM accounted for about one-third of the nation's medical bills, including drugs, with TCM providers and treatments generating the equivalent of about $130 billion in revenue. Given the potential market for TCM and China's less stringent regulations, advanced R&D projects could see broad government support. The researchers' nanomaterials technology could receive fast-track testing and approval to reach farmers in a short time frame (possibly up to five years).

Pandemic-Related Uncertainties

Before the covid-19 (coronavirus-disease-2019) pandemic, demand for high-yield crops that can resist environmental stresses was at an all-time high—particularly because climate change places considerable strain on agricultural practices. However, economic stressors and a recession resulting from the pandemic may lead to prolonged changes to the agriculture and TCM markets. A potential future outcome is that innovative initiatives and collaborations decline, and a number of developers may be unable to survive financial hardship and may exit the market. Alternatively, the world may be able to achieve economic recovery relatively soon, with China leading the way. China could play increasing roles in exporting new medical practices and procedures and in global health-care-technology supply chains. Some of the strength of China's position rests on its well-funded efforts to reform and rationalize TCM.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Health care, agriculture, nutraceuticals

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Key Areas to Monitor (Part 1)

Why is this topic significant?

Stakeholders should monitor key issues and uncertainties that could have an outsize impact on how companies commercialize nanobiotechnologies.

CRISPR

Advances in gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats-CRISPR associated protein) will allow scientists to grow fundamental knowledge and enable the development of applications for nucleic acids. Organizations around the world are very active in the development of CRISPR-based therapies for a variety of applications. In medical applications, clinical trials for the technology have steadily increased each year since the first human trial of CRISPR began at Sichuan University in 2016. In agriculture, the use of CRISPR has become a major focus of research in the development of new varieties of gene-edited crops that resist drought and disease and have increased nutritional value. However, regulatory variations exist across markets. These regulatory variations could shorten the time frame for making new CRISPR products available in both the medical and the agricultural markets while decreasing investments in regions that have a more cautious approach to new technologies.

What to watch for:

  • The patent dispute between the Broad Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, which may lead to companies' seeking licenses from both organizations. In Europe, the European Patent Office has already retracted a key patent for CRISPR-Cas9 held by the Broad Institute. In the United States, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board is looking to determine who was the first to invent CRISPR in eukaryotic cells.
  • Filings of new legal battles.
  • Development of other highly efficient Cas proteins and CRISPR systems.
  • Research into the possible side effect of CRISPR-Cas9–based therapies.
  • Preliminary results from ongoing clinical trials worldwide.

Nanomedicine

The application of nanoscale-material technologies in drug delivery provides better bioavailability, biocompatibility, efficacy, and selectivity than are available with conventional therapy modalities. The field of nanomedicine—which includes highly specific medical interventions at the molecular scale for diagnosing and treating diseases, whereby fully integrated multifunctional nanoscale carriers will be able to circulate through the bloodstream undetected by the immune system and selectively destroy their target with limited collateral damage—captures the imagination of many researchers and the interest and investment of pharmaceutical companies.

What to watch for:

  • Improvements to overcome the adverse effects of drug-delivery systems.
  • Advances in researchers' ability to control and direct molecules as well as devise strategies and fabrication methods to build synthetic and hybrid multifunctional structures and systems at the nanoscale.
  • Research groups are well advanced with small devices that transit the gastrointestinal tract to collect data for diagnostic purposes. Some developments will likely seek to combine analysis with drug delivery.
  • New materials technologies that provide unprecedented sensitivity when interfacing with human biology.

Nanodiagnostics

The use of quantum dots, gold nanoparticles, cantilevers, and other nanomaterial technologies in the development of nanoscale diagnostic applications is driving research and commercial developments. Diagnostic-platform developments are targeting more individualized capabilities through multiplexing of biological levels of information.

What to watch for:

  • Development of nanoscale sensors with high sensitivity and selectivity.
  • Inclusion of nanoscale sensors in bioanalytics devices that perform better than their microscale counterparts perform.
  • Licensing agreements and cooperation with established players could provide new entrants with a means of gaining market entry. The wide use of such devices may cause disruptions to the use of conventional tests on which physicians currently rely to diagnose various diseases, such as cancer.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Health care, pharmaceutical research, medical materials, nanodiagnostics, nanotechnology, implantable devices, agriculture

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: