Monday, May 6, 2013

'Iron Man' and the future of nanotechnology

How do you take a golden suit of armor to the next level? Tony Stark turns to nanotechnology in “Iron Man 3.” He undergoes injections of a super-soldier serum called Extremis that enhances strength and can regenerate limbs and cure wounds, so that he has super powers even when he’s not wearing his Iron Man suit.

While Extremis is an invention of comic books and Hollywood, scientists are actually working to develop similar “super serums” in the real world.

“Some of the features in the movie 'Iron Man' may be far-fetched, but other features will probably become a reality,” says Shuming Nie, chair of biomedical engineering at Emory and Georgia Tech and the director of the Emory-Georgia Tech Cancer Nanotechnology Center.

He cites a project supported by the U.S. Air Force involving nanoparticles that can amplify optical-detection sensitivity by 10 to the 14th fold.

Another promising area is targeted nanoparticles therapeutics, including a project under way at Emory, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania, to develop nanoparticle contrast agents.

“These are agents that you can inject into the human body two or three hours before surgery,” Nie explains. “A surgeon can then visualize where the tumors are, because they’re glowing. The surgeon can identify where the boundaries are, where to cut, and whether there is any residue tumor left.”

Major efforts are ongoing to develop nanotechnology applications for use in medicine, biology, energy and environmental science.

“The most amazing applications are probably going to be in the medical field,” Nie says. "To design anything that works inside the human body is enormously challenging, because the human body is immensely complex. However, our imaginations are also unlimited. So if we work together, I think certainly in the next generation we'll have some of these nanoparticles with specialized functions able to do very unusual things in the human body."

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