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Nanobiotechnology December 2021/January 2022 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Ivona Bradley

2021: The Year in Review

By Joe Salter
Salter is an independent consultant specializing in health sciences.

Overview

The arrival of covid‑19 vaccines on the market has moved nanobiotechnology into the spotlight, headlined by Pfizer-BioNTech's and Moderna's revolutionary vaccine platforms, which combine RNA and lipid-nanoparticle technologies. Public funds led to a number of new research-industrial spinoffs and the acceleration of development of technologies that are already improving health and saving lives. Notwithstanding commercial successes, a central focus of the field is basic research: to elucidate the fundamental behavior of nanoparticles and the properties of nanomaterials. The importance of understanding these basic principles is highlighted by developments in biomimetic membranes, lubricants, and adhesives. A positive feedback loop in research is resulting from steady improvements in imaging techniques for matter less than 100 nanometers in size. Furthermore, 2021 saw the design of nanodiagnostic assays for viral diseases, as well as chronic and neglected medical conditions that currently lack safe or effective screening tests. Cutting-edge advances in nonmedical industries—such as electronics, agriculture, and energy—could act as pivotal moments around which future research coalesces.

Looking ahead to 2022, interdisciplinary and international collaborations—vital to the sector's growth—will likely lead to the interfacing of synergistic nanotechnologies, such as carbon nanorods, nucleic acids, polypeptides, liposomes, and metal nanoparticles. The emergence of products containing antiviral nanoparticles and nanoscale filters could immediately affect the market and generate substantial investment returns. Advances in high-throughput techniques would cut down production times and ensure reproducibility, paving the way for commercial applications and large-scale research studies. Given the above, the effects of nanoparticles in humans are still relatively unknown. Improvements in detection and imagining would allow researchers to conduct safety assessments that could inform policy making and help establish clear regulatory frameworks. In the current environment, manufacturers can find it difficult to gauge the field's direction, and potential funders may be hesitant to invest in a product that might never reach the commercial market. Buy-in from the private sector is key for the industry, especially given that a significant amount of public funds are specifically for health-care-capacity building and a narrow scope of nanotech projects, which leaves less public funding for nonmedical industries.

Key Developments Identified by SBI in 2021

  • Nanotechnology and Vaccine Delivery. RNA is an unstable molecule that is prone to degradation in the body and, without an adequate delivery system, can cause unwanted immune responses in patients. The lipid-nanoparticle platforms that deliver the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna covid‑19 vaccines protect the mRNA from degradation and enable its safe delivery to host cells.
  • The Escape Tactics of Self-Propelling Nanoparticles. Nanoswimmers are self-propelling nanoparticles that generate propulsion from chemical fuel sources in the environment. Nanoswimmers can rapidly navigate complex environments, search for cavities, and overcome electrostatic barriers that typically hinder particle mobility, which suggests potential applications in drug-delivery systems and bioremediation.
  • Hybridizing of DNA Origami and Liposomes. DNA origami typically serves as a scaffold but can also guide liposome movement and regulate activity, which could serve in the design of drug-delivery systems. By harnessing DNA origami's ability to change conformation, researchers could create hollow lipid-nanocapsules with lids that open to release contents or close to capture pathogens.
  • Optical Imaging of Nanoparticles. New tools for the real-time characterization of very small nanoparticles could increase the speed and reliability of nanomaterial analysis without compromising the accuracy and precision of measurement. This development will significantly reduce the time and resources necessary for nanomaterials-research developments.
  • Drug Screening by Means of Nanorods. Researchers created nanorods that resemble the structure of amyloid fibers associated with Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases. When a drug disrupts this structure, the nanorod produces a detectable signal, notifying researchers of a drug candidate. Drug-screening nanotechnologies could help rein in ever-increasing R&D investment needs and better serve the market.
  • An Early Diagnostic Test for Obstetric Medicine. In the past four decades, rates of placenta accreta spectrum have been on the rise in pregnancies. Using NanoVelcro Chip technology, researchers designed a portable blood test with greater diagnostic accuracy than that of existing methods—especially when in combination with ultrasonography—helping clinicians prevent severe maternal hemorrhaging during childbirth.
  • Hormone Nanosensor for Precision Agriculture. The agriculture industry will be a major beneficiary of advanced analytical tools, such as portable nanosensors that measure plant metabolite levels in real time. Rapid detection of hormone deficiencies could improve crop productivity, resource allocation, and responsiveness to environmental stressors.
  • Nanotechnology-Enabled Orthopedic Implant. Research shows that particular implant surface patterns can encourage cell adhesion and proliferation, as is evident in an orthopedic implant that increases the activity of human stem cells and promotes bone growth. Nanotechnology has proved capable of delivering longer-lasting, less-invasive, and biocompatible implants that interconnect biosensors, human–machine interfaces, and materials technologies.
  • Reprogramming of Cells with Electrical Currents. By applying a brief electrical shock to a silicon chip on the skin, researchers are able to rapidly deliver reprogramming factors through layers of tissue to cells in a process—tissue nanotransfection—that they used to convert skin cells into blood vessels. Their published nanofabrication protocol will allow researchers to reproduce the chip and stimulate further developments in regenerative and emergency medicine.
  • Electrical Conductance of DNA. Nucleic acids are promising polymers in the design of biobased nanoelectronics because of their conductivity and structural properties, though electrical activity weakens with increasing strand length. Researchers from Japan identified a configuration that allows for longer DNA strands (up to 30 nanometers). They even observed self-restoration to the desired configuration and positioning after electrical failure.
  • Mimicking of Protein Channels to Desalinate Water. Biological proteins—aquaporins—facilitate the movement of water through cellular membranes with high efficiency and selectivity. By mimicking the structure and function of aquaporins, researchers created an ultrapermeable, self-assembling nanostructure that could serve to desalinate and purify water.
  • Titanium Dioxide: Unsafe Food Additive. As more food manufacturers use the food additive E171 in their products, the chances of consumers' ingesting unsafe levels of titanium dioxide nanoparticles may increase. The European Food Safety Authority cannot recommend a safe level of daily E171 intake, so manufacturers should be wary of regulatory changes and liability concerns. Enhanced cooperation between governments and industry partners will be necessary for further development.

Areas to Monitor Highlighted by SBI in 2021

Macro/Dynamic Issues (Frequently Featured)

  • Nanomedicine

    Effective delivery of drugs is a key goal for pharmaceutical companies as they look to build their novel-drugs pipeline and minimize waste. The application of nanoscale-material technologies in drug delivery provides better bioavailability, biocompatibility, efficacy, and selectivity than are available with conventional therapy modalities.

  • Weak Links in Science and Technology

    The scientific and technical areas that produce the knowledge, processes, tools, and materials necessary for commercial applications to occur will likely have weak links. Breakthrough developments in these areas could quickly advance scientific understanding, research capabilities, and new-product developments.

  • Nanodiagnostics

    Diagnostic-platform developments target more individualized capabilities through multiplexing of biological levels of information. Such developments of nanoscale diagnostic applications could benefit from the use of quantum dots, gold nanoparticles, and other nanomaterials with high sensitivity and selectivity.

  • Nanotoxicity

    Nanotoxicity assessments may enable government agencies to update current regulatory pathways or develop effective new ones for manufacturing and using nanomaterials and for identifying and evaluating new nanomaterials. Improving regulatory frameworks may enable companies to manage increases in R&D costs more effectively.

Micro/Semi-Stable Issues (Sometimes Featured)

  • Molecular Self-Assembly

    The ability to direct biological organisms—which range from ribosomes to viruses and bacteria—to operate as templates for the orderly fabrication of more complex materials and structures could lead to opportunities to manufacture electronic, optical, and magnetic materials with uniform and clearly defined structures.

  • Water Scarcity

    As the world's population grows and the effects of global warming on weather patterns increase, freshwater is becoming increasingly scarce. Water scarcity is a key driver of investment in membrane technologies, and membrane-based water treatment has become an integral part of government policy and water security in water-stressed regions.

  • Tissue Engineering

    Tissue engineering promises to change the way physicians treat many diseases and injuries. The functional properties of many biopolymers make them candidates to support in vitro tissue growth, moderate cell-to-cell interactions, and form the basis of replacement tissues.

  • Human Augmentation

    Technological convergence between information technology and nanobiotechnology is a critical enabler in creating the means to build superhuman capabilities. The augmentation of human capabilities bears monitoring for the potential opportunities and problems that such technologies could bring about.

  • Biomimetics

    Scientists are already developing biomimetic products such as synthetic blood. The ability to self-assemble biological microstructures to mimic biological processes can lead to opportunities for manufacturing self-assembling electronic and medical materials with enhanced properties and intricate structures.

  • Sensors

    Nanosensors can find use in a range of industries, including the agriculture, health, environmental, defense-and-security, food, and drug-discovery industries. Developers believe that the use of nanotechnology could enable the design of sensors that are more sensitive, stable, responsive, and selective than are existing sensors.

Look for These Developments in 2022

  • Nanoscale microscopy. Despite progress in recent years, imaging materials smaller than 100 nanometers remains challenging for researchers. Improvements in high-resolution and real-time visualization techniques will help researchers characterize nanoscale particles and materials and evaluate their biological effects.
  • Nanodiagnostics. Highly selective sensors that are sensitive enough to detect a single particle could dramatically improve medical diagnostics. In comparison with existing procedures, nanodiagnostic tests would likely be minimally invasive and generate results in short turnaround.
  • Portable sensors. The detection of nanoparticles frequently relies on bulky high-tech equipment, which restricts testing to the lab. Portable sensors would allow point-of-contact use by clinicians and enable their use in the field for immediate quantification of nanoparticles in their native environment.
  • Nanotechnology in agriculture. The application of nanobiotechnology in agriculture has the potential to help farmers adapt to climate change, increase crop yields, and improve resource allocation. Innovations might include nanosensors that can determine which plants need additional fertilizers or pesticides and whether they are receiving enough water or too much.
  • Immunotherapeutics. Immunotherapy aims to treat disease by boosting or redirecting the natural immune response to destroy cancerous cells or invading pathogens. Nanomaterials can play numerous roles, from the design of delivery systems to generation of communication signals to enhancement of drug activity.