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Bionanotechnology holds great promise for revolutionizing the field of medicine. Cells naturally interact with their surroundings and with one another via exquisitely complex nanoscale structures. Nanomedicine and bionanotechnology provide the means to improve present techniques for characterizing the nanoscale structure and function of cells, and to mimic those structures by designing artificial biomaterials through molecular synthesis and nanoscale self-assembly.

Institute researchers are working to create novel materials to deliver therapeutic drugs more effectively, diagnose disease much earlier, and even to repair damage to the human body as a result of injury or disease. These materials can be composed of a wide range matter, from functionalized gold or silica nanoparticles to biocompatible polymers and synthetic bioactive peptides and proteins. The common thread is that these materials are designed to organize into functional units with characteristic dimensions on the nanoscale, and this nanoscale structure is integral to their function.

Advances in imaging materials at the nanoscale provide insight into the interaction of cells with biomolecules. Identifying biomimetic strategies could lead to the creation of specialized materials that foster biological self-repair of the human body. Institute researchers seek to use these new capabilities to produce novel, biocompatible implants. Based on newly developed constructs with synthetic components and arrays of cells, it may soon be possible to repair tissues (e.g., skin, muscle, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, nerves, and bone) with implants composed of biocompatible coatings that the body will accept and integrate within the physiological medium. This is in stark contrast with the largely inert, metallic and polymeric materials currently used in biomedical implants, which generally lack any structural design on the nanoscale.

Another goal is to apply nanotechnology to cancer diagnostics and therapeutics. Funded through a $144.3 million, five-year NIH-NCI initiative for nanotechnology in cancer research, Institute researchers from the International Institute for Nanotechnology and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center are working collaboratively to develop nanotechnology platforms for ultimate application in the clinic. They are working on the development of new assays that will increase the accuracy of diagnosis by orders of magnitude, new imaging techniques, and methods for targeted delivery of chemotherapeutic agents.