Nanotechnology, best-known for shrinking the circuits on computer chips, is also contributing to complex medical research being done in the Capital Region.
The science — which deals with materials at the microscopic level, where they are measured in billionths of a meter — is being used to design drugs targeted for cancer treatment, or to make medical testing devices smaller and more accurate, according to experts.
“It has unlimited potential in terms of research you can do and new directions you can take,” said Thomas Begley, an associate professor of nanobioscience at the University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.
Some of the research is a decade or more from having practical applications, but some may be helping patients much sooner.
Ultradian Diagnostics of East Greenbush, for example, is a small medical research company working on improving glucose monitoring systems for diabetics.
The 6-year-old company recently completed a human pilot study that showed its continuous glucose monitoring patch gives accurate blood sugar measurements, vital so diabetics can determine how much insulin to inject.
The University at Albany’s nano-college has become a hub for world-class high-tech engagement, including medical research. Ultradian will be doing test production at the school’s miniature electronic device manufacturing research center in Canandaigua.
Ultradian’s device, called the Biologue CGM, is worn like a skin patch. It could reduce the need for diabetics to draw their own blood to take blood sugar readings.
“What we’re doing is shrinking down the size of the device. Ours has a very small needle, and you don’t even feel it,” said company President John Willis.
Potentially, the Biologue could replace the regimen followed by diabetics who test with a needle-stick blood sample four to six times per day. If successful, the Biologue’s development would be a breakthrough that could affect millions.
There are about 26 million Type I or Type II diabetics in the United States alone, and the incidence of Type II — or adult-onset diabetes — has been growing for years. An accurate continuous glucose monitoring would help diabetics avoid the high and low blood sugars that cause long-term health damage.
Willis hopes the Biologue can have U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval within two years. To date, the National Institutes for Health have provided $550,000 in research funding. According to the NIH, continuous glucose monitoring systems now on the market aren’t as accurate as finger-prick testing, and shouldn’t be used without also doing conventional testing.
“What we bring to the table is a much more accurate device,” Willis said.
FDA approval of an accurate monitoring device would be a major step toward development of an “artificial pancreas” — the long-sought goal of combining blood glucose monitoring, an insulin pump and a sophisticated computer program to automatically adjust a diabetic’s insulin levels, just as the pancreas of non-diabetics does.
“There are some big hurdles to overcome, but the technology is there and is evolving,” Willis said.
The National Institutes of Health in December released draft guidelines for clinical trials on “artificial pancreas” devices.
“Research has demonstrated the dramatic impact the artificial pancreas could have — saving lives, transforming quality of life for people with Type I diabetes and reducing preventable medical complications,” said Jeffrey Brewer, president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, said when the guidelines were released.
But the work being done by Ultradian is just one example of medical use for nanotechnology.
Some of the research is going on in and around Albany Nanotech, the ever-expanding $12 billion academic and research facility at the western edge of the University at Albany campus.
The campus has a worldwide reputation for its computer chip research programs, but work also occurs there in science, engineering and medicine. About 2,600 people work on-site including college staff and private scientists, technicians and researchers.
With 70 to 80 staff or graduate-level students, the nanobiology program is the college’s fastest-growing, according to College of Nanoscience spokesman Steve Janack.
“There are people who are doing things that couldn’t be done anywhere else, because we have the clean rooms,” Janack said.
Begley and J. Andres Melendez, a professor of nanobioscience, are working together on research that could lead to cancer drugs that target individual cells, or prevent damage to healthy cells during cancer treatment.
“You don’t want to deliver drugs all over the body, you want to target where they need to go,” said Melendez, who is associate head of the college’s nanobioscience program.
Begley said his research focuses on whether nano-formulated drugs can be created to help treat colon, bladder and breast cancers.
The college is a good site for such cutting-edge medical research, Begley said, because of the various research disciplines within the college.
“It has the engineers, chemists and physicists who can work things through on a nanoscale,” Begley said. The college in December acquired a $350,000 flow cytometery instrument, which allows researchers to identify and evaluate the traits of individual cells.
Begley and Melendez said their research is at least a decade away from having clinical applications, though they have high hopes.
And at the nearby Harriman Research Center on the state’s Harriman Campus, a small research company is getting ready to take a nanotechnology-based project to clinical trials. Breonics is developing a new way of monitoring the health of kidneys and other organs that are potentially available for human transplant.
Ernest Green, chairman and co-founder of the company, said, “The application here is would be in different kinds of sensors, to make them very small.”
The sensors — which university researchers are helping to miniaturize — would monitor oxygen levels, glucose and blood chemistry in a potential donor organ. That could allow doctors and technicians to take actions to restore an organ, even if the donor has been dead for several hours.
Potentially, that could bring more donor organs into circulation — a significant development, since demand for transplant organs far outstrips the supply. Currently, donor organs can only be taken from someone who died in the hospital, and immediately after their death. With Breonics sensors, it’s possible someone who died before reaching the hospital could have their organs prepared for donation.
“The current donor pool is a very small fraction of the people who die every year,” Green said. “This greatly expands the number of people in the donor base.”
Breonics, which has received more than $4 million from the National Institutes of Health and other government research programs, has conducted successful animal trials. It hopes to start preparations for human trials within the next few months.
Overall, Melendez said nanobioscience has the potential to allow people to monitor their own health with an electronic device, and for doctors to develop medical treatments specifically tailored to an individual’s biochemistry.
One of Melendez’ interests is in developing drugs specifically tailored to prevent age-related body deterioration, perhaps by supplying beneficial anti-oxidants directly to the cells that most need them.
“We’re not going to make you live longer, but we’re going to make you live better,” he said.