Graphene and carbon nanotubes are likely to play an important role in the history of medicine if recent reports are to be believed. Nanotechnology has been the shiny new thing of medicine for several years and is yet to show signs of tarnishing. Nanomedicine, as the new discipline has been termed, promises to revolutionise the way in which we perform medical procedures and makes possible atom sized interventions that make key hole surgery seem brutally invasive.

Using the materials as interstitial traps for medicinal molecules the latest trick of medicine enables doctors and physicians to administer drugs with pin point accuracy. Research carried out by Dr David Loftus, Medical Director of the Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames, has resulted in the development of an on-demand carbon nanotube drug delivery system. The NASA Biocapsule is the US space industry’s answer to the problem of cancer inducing cosmic radiation; a serious concern for astronauts who are at risk of solar radiation exposure that can cause bone marrow and immune system disease.

The Biocapsule is filled with a hormone called G-CSF which is currently used in cancer treatment on earth, and which is released through the walls of the CNT when an exposure to radiation is detected. The whole process runs on autopilot, the CNT chemically yielding its payload when it comes into contact with the radiation. The process works so well that NASA is planning to extend the programme so that stress, exhaustion and general health concerns can be addressed too.

NASA’s Biocapsule is a phenomenal result for Doctor Loftus’ research team and moves are afoot for loading the CNT’s with pancreatic cells to help treat patients with diabetes. The CNT’s could be designed to respond to glucose levels and release insulin when required. The potential benefits of the discovery are truly remarkable and will likely transform the $300 billion pharmaceuticals market.

In fact the terrestrial pharmaceutical industry is already responding to the challenge with graphene and CNT scaffolds for drug delivery. Graphene has already been identified as a potential therapeutic weapon in the war on cancer, its physical properties making it a cancer killing heat treatment when exposed to infra-red light. Yet in addition to this potential application research carried out by a team at the University of Wisconsin has shown that graphene can carry a radioactive imaging label directly into a cancer tumour.

 

In pursuit of their goal the research team first coated tiny sheets of graphene oxide with strands of the polymer polyethylene glycol. Then onto some of the polymer chains they attached an antibody that binds to a protein found on the blood vessels growing around some tumour types, whilst on a number of the other polymer chains the researchers added a copper-based radiolabel.

 

The researchers then injected the graphene oxide probes into mice with breast cancer tumours and used positron emission tomography imaging to monitor where, and at what concentrations, the probes accumulated. Within 30 minutes, the graphene oxide probe appeared in tumor blood vessels and remained there at a constant level until the study ended,

Both the Biocapsule and the graphene scaffold show immense promise and will likely become part of mainstream medical approaches to disease treatment. Identifying those companies most likely to take up the gauntlet is another question. The Joint European¬†Commission’s Roadmaps in Nanomedicine Towards 2020 may well give some clues, placing the potential market share of non invasive nanomedicines at somewhere close to 40 billion Euros by 2025 (http://www.etp-nanomedicine.eu/public/press-documents/publications/etpn-publications/091022_ETPN_Report_2009.pdf).

Whatever the market gains from this innovation it remains the case that the true beneficiaries will be those people for whom nanomedicine advances will mean an end to filling their bodies with inordinate amounts of pharmaceutical drugs.