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Jillian Buriak, Professor & Senior Research Officer, National Institute for Nanotechnology, at one of her University of Alberta labs, in Edmonton, on September 30, 2011, for a Shaping the Future story. John Ulan for The Globe and MailJohn Ulan/The Globe and Mail

Inside Jillian Buriak's laboratory, it's a small world. A University of Alberta chemistry professor and a senior research officer at Edmonton's National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), Dr. Buriak manipulates silicon and other materials at the nano scale – between one and 100 nanometers in size. Just how tiny is that? Think of it this way: A grain of sand measures one million nanometres across.

Dr. Buriak is one of many scientists who are applying nanotechnology to medicine. Since 2005, she has worked with a multidisciplinary team trying to solve the problem of rejection in organ transplants due to blood incompatibility.

People keep asking when her field will deliver a killer app like the cure for cancer, Dr. Buriak says. "But what nanotechnology has done more than anything else is bring people together who normally would never talk to each other," she explains.

Over the past decade, nano-medicine has moved out of the research lab and into the doctor's office, in products such as anti-cancer drugs and wound dressings. But scientists are just starting to tap its potential for everything from drug delivery to disease diagnosis.

One of Dr. Buriak's key collaborators on the transplantation project is Lori West, a U of A professor of pediatrics, surgery and immunology. Dr. West, a renowned cardiac transplant expert, is known for her discovery that children younger than two will not reject a heart from a donor with a different blood type.

That's because the immune system is still developing during infancy. Even more remarkably, if a baby with Type A blood gets a Type B heart, it will develop a lifelong tolerance for B and AB blood.

The U of A team "functionalized" so-called stealth nano-particles with the antigens, or markers, that blood cells use to recognize each other. In animal tests, it introduced these particles into the bloodstream in an attempt to teach the body to tolerate every blood type.

Dr. Buriak, who hopes to move to more advanced models by 2015, says the nano-particles could eventually join the standard set of shots that children receive. "Later, if you ever had to have an organ transplant or a transfusion, you wouldn't have to wait for the right one – you could just take any of them."

At the University of Toronto, chemist Shana Kelley leads nanotech research that includes better disease testing. Dr. Kelley, who works across four U of T faculties, says widespread adoption of nano-medicine is on the horizon. With all paradigm shifts in science, Dr. Kelley explains, practical applications gain momentum after a long period of basic research. "There's an inflection point, and I think we're nearing that inflection point."

For seven years, Dr. Kelley and her colleagues have been developing nano-scale sensors for biomarkers of cancer and other diseases. They've found a way to print nano-materials on the surface of microchips, then attach these sensors to molecules that will bind to the samples they want to test.

"There's a dramatic difference [from]using a nano-material-based sensor versus a more conventional type of sensor," Dr. Kelley says. "It allows you to get right down to very low levels of the molecules that are markers of disease."

Dr. Kelley's group has already filed patents, licensed its intellectual property and started a company. The next step: two years of development work to make the technology robust enough for approval by Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Then it may just be a few months away from being able to let clinicians use it," she says.

Meanwhile, scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago are fighting disease with nanotech. At the laboratory's Center for Nanoscale Materials, the NanoBio Interfaces Group began by integrating titanium dioxide nano-particles with biomolecules so it could target sites in unwanted cells and destroy the cells by applying visible light. It then added cell-killing magnetic material to its repertoire.

Having proven that this method works against dental pathogens and illnesses such as psoriasis, group leader Tijana Rajh and her team are now focusing on brain, head and neck cancer. "It could be applied in oncology, cardiology – whatever we want to get rid of specifically in the body, we can do it," says assistant scientist Elena Rozhkova.

Toronto-based Tornado Medical Systems, a medical imaging and spectroscopy startup, plans to unveil its first nano-medicine prototype next January. Current spectrometers are bulky, expensive instruments that rely on lenses, mirrors and fibre optics. But the next generation will be on computer chips, says molecular geneticist Frédéric Sweeney, Tornado's vice-president for business development and strategy.

The company has developed a chip-sized nano-photonics spectrometer with technology licensed from Cornell University electrical and computer engineering professor Michal Lipson. Spectrometers on chips are more durable and much cheaper to produce, says Dr. Sweeney, who notes that Tornado also has ideas for diagnostic tools to follow its imaging device.

Within a decade, he hopes, physicians will have point-of-care tests for diagnosing heart attacks and other conditions on the spot. "If we can develop tests that allow us to make these go/no-go decisions much faster, I think it's going to significantly increase efficiencies in hospitals," Dr. Sweeney says.

Back in Edmonton, David Wishart thinks the most interesting nano-scale devices are biological systems. Dr. Wishart, a professor in the University of Alberta's departments of computer science and biological science, heads nano life sciences research at NINT.

Among other projects, his group has created nano "robots" by altering the genetic makeup of bacteria so they change colour when exposed to certain chemicals. Building on existing "lab on chip" technology, Dr. Wishart aims to install such biosensors on a device the size of a USB key. After inserting a blood, urine or water sample into this portable lab, the user could read the results on a laptop.

Dr. Wishart laments the lack of progress in modernizing medical testing through nano and other new technologies. "They've all basically died, partly because of the red tape but also the lack of interest or vision or motivation by the medical community," he says. "We just don't have a process in North America or even in Europe to get these things into practice."

Nano-meds in action

Here are three commercially available nano-medicine products, from the online inventory of the Washington-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies:

Abraxane, a cancer treatment: Developed by Los Angeles-based Abraxis BioScience Inc., it won approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 2005. It targets advanced breast cancer by delivering its active agent in a nanoparticle coating.

Vitoss, for bone replacement: Surgeons use this synthetic biomaterial from Orthovita Inc., a Pennsylvania-based orthobiologics and biosurgery company, to perform bone grafts.

Acticoat, for wound dressing: Introduced in 1998, this antimicrobial barrier dressing contains silver nanoparticles. Smith & Nephew licenses Acticoat's technology from Nucryst Pharmaceuticals Corp., a company that does nanocrystalline research and development and manufacturing in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.

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