Atif Syed and Zakareya Hussein
University of York, United Kingdom
What if we could use a novel
approach for delivering currently
injectable drugs to the body without syringers? What if we could destroy malignant cancer cells in difficult areas of the body that cannot yet be targeted? What if all of this could be kept open so that it could instill innovation and creativity? We are doing research to try to combine these ideas into what we call the ‘Nanject’, in order to improve healthcare and make the treatment of cancer safer and more effective. Another aspect of the research and efforts which the Nanject project will hopefully start is the concept of ‘Open Nanotechnolgy’ which will be discussed further in the article.
At the moment, injections are used everywhere and they are considered safe by most people. The reason we use injections is because they are the quickest and most effective way to deliver drugs since they will not be destroyed by the gastric acids and can get directly into the blood stream. Apart from everyday medicines, this is true for many biotechnology-based medicines as well. But there are significant risks associated with injections, such as infections which can occur when the syringe accidentally pushes bacteria from the surface of the skin into the wound during the injection process. People who need to take regular injections such as diabetics become increasingly susceptible to this. Another risk is posed when syringes are reused in the absence of sterilization, which exposes individuals to bacterial infections as well as blood-born pathogens or viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C . According to the World Health Organization, numerous assessments have shown that up to 40% of injections worldwide are given with
syringes and needles that are reused without sterilization . In addition to this, adults and children get stabbed or pricked by syringes that are unsafely disposed of, such as when they are thrown on the ground or into the bin without the hypodermic needle end being protected.
Many people in society suffer from ineffective treatments. As we get older, we commonly develop multiple medical problems that are treated using pharmaceutical drugs. Each individual drug often causes multiple side-effects, which can be very crippling and that can cause depression in people with already weakened bodies due to age. Side effects can include brain fog, reduced mental capacity and reduced motor co-ordination among others. Most of this is due to administering much more than the necessary amounts of potentially poisonous medications into the bloodstream since they are being distributed everywhere in the body via the circulatory system. There is a huge need for something that gives no more of a drug than is required by and to the area of we want to treat.
An estimated 12.7 million new cancer related cases were reported in 2008 and about 40% of them were lung, breast, prostate and stomach related cancer   . In Asia alone, about 4 million people die due to cancer . Even with current methods, treatment of cancer is not guaranteed and in some cases patients are left with many side-effects. For example, in chemotherapy, while destroying cancer cells, many healthy cells are also destroyed. In addition to nausea and vomiting, patients undergoing chemotherapy may suffer from more serious side-effects such as infertility    , brain and neurological effects    , hair loss  , anaemia  and even damage to heart , liver , kidney  and ears  . In some cases patients will be more prone to viruses and bacteria since the immune system is weakened due to the suppression of the immune system during the process of chemotherapy. In other cases, patients undergoing chemotherapy may eventually die before the cancer is actually eliminated due to many healthy cells being destroyed during the process.
In this research we want to create a patch that looks similar to a nicotine or hormonal patch that you can apply on top of your skin. We are calling it the Nanject. The patch will be made out of silicon and possibly another polymer. Small nano-projections which are basically microscopic needle-like tips will be created on one side of the patch— the side that touches the skin. These are invisible to the human eye. When the patch is applied, these nanoprojections will enter the hair follicle on the skin. Hair follicles themselves provide access to the subcutaneous layer which is where many vaccines are normally injected. The subcutaneous layer is essentially a fatty region underneath the skin. The difference is that vaccines damage tiny blood vessels called capillaries (causing internal bleeding) a technique not employed by Nanject. From the subcutaneous layer, medicines are absorbed into capillaries that are intact. Capillaries are very selective about what they actually let into the blood stream to defend your body from invaders, which in turn means patients will be shielded from many of the risks associated with traditional injections — such as the afore mentioned bacterial infections and other complications. This is the case even if the Nanject is accidently left unsterilized! The remaining nanoprojections which don’t hit the hair follicle on target are so small that they cannot even pierce the skin, making them completely harmless. This also means that when improperly disposed of the patch won’t cause any accidental harm to adults or children who handle it. This will allow people without any special training to self-administer injections without any fear of pain and with very low risk of infection .
What we are trying to do is to have tiny nanowires which act as needles/tips. On the surface of the nanowires, we will then have nanoparticles coated with peptides, which are sub-components of proteins that consist of short aminoacid chains, and gold. The reason we are coating them with peptides is to make these nanoparticles bio-compatible. Gold is included because of its potential interaction with thiolated molecules . These nanoparticles will then be coated with different types of antigens or antibodies. What these antigens or antibodies do is that they detect and tag cancer cells once they are inside your bloodstream. The way nanoparticles will communicate back to us is an open research question, but at the moment, we will use their magnetic properties to communicate and control the movement of the nanoparticles once they are inside the body. So what we are really doing is making chemically actuated bots which get activated by using a chemical phenomenon — in other words, chemical programming. By using magnetism, once the nanoparticles are inside the human body we can control the movement of the particle using an external magnetic field such as an MRI. Another method which we will be using is partly in sync with Dr. Kendall’s which involves etching out the nanoprojections . There will be different trails in terms of the synthesis of the nanoparticles and the patch as a whole in order to determine the best approach to tackle each issue one at a time.
One of the things we are trying to do with Nanject apart from improving healthcare, is to make the initial steps towards Open Nanotechnology. Imagine if Linux didn’t exist, the internet we all know and love would probably not exist, or else our ISP (Internet Service Provider) might end up paying for multiple licenses just to get the internet to our homes, making it more expensive. In fact, we use Linux all the time (yes, even if you are using Windows) as it is the primary operating system used on servers. Without Linux, most people wouldn’t even know what a kernel is and how to make one (for the curious-minded) or how an Operating System actually works. That’s the power of Open Source. So, what’s happening to Nanotechnology? Most of Nanotech is done in labs and kept hidden unless a patent is filed. After getting the patent, that technology won’t usually be open for use by anyone, hereby diminishing basic knowledge about this new field and hampering innovation. Science is all about sharing and collaborating with others. That’s the pure essence which distinguishes science itself. With Nanject, we want to create the fundamentals of open nanotechnology; where researchers can collaborate, share and use the building blocks of the technology. It’s not like keeping it open means there can’t be businesses — look at Red Hat; it's a multi billion dollar industry based on free Linux software! We are at a point where people should limit how quickly they rush off to the patent office to patent a technology. We should leave our ego behind and collaborate, and have constructive criticism for the betterment of science.
We envision Nanject to eliminate the need for needles and syringes, and to provide a complete solution for targeting drugs from the detection of cancer cells, to eventually deliver any medical drugs into your body with no side-effects. Since we are both electronics majors, we are collaborating with others to make this possible. An example of this is our collaboration with the York iGEM team who are synthetic biologists trying to create a biofuel cell powered by bacteria .
About the Author
Atif Syed has been programming since the age of 10 and over time has produced numerous algorithms and software. A graduate in Electronics and Nanotechnology Engineering and has 4 years of research experience in Artificial Intelligence, Swarm Robotics, Targeted Drug Delivery by using Magnetic Nanoparticles (aka: Nanject) which has recently gained a lot of media coverage. Atif is also a Young Professional in IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology), STEM Ambassador and a TRANSIT Research Scholar at the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis. Atif's main area of interest lies in application of nanoparticles and nanowires in Bionanotechnology, MEMS/NEMS, Material Science, Biomedical Engineering, Smart Materials, Spintronics and Nanorobotics.
Zakareya’s background is in Electronics Engineering with Nanotechnology at the University of York who conferred a Master’s degree in this subject. His interest lies in nanotechnology and its potential in health care and performance enhancement since he was 14 years old. He had the unfortunate luck of having been hospitalized many times. He used that to his advantage, having been through hospital systems in 3 different countries and understanding the differing national standards used around the world to treat the exact same conditions. Zakareya has taken courses in medicine in relation to electronics engineering as well as working on the implementation of a stroke rehabilitation system for his Master’s project.
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