Diagnosing diseases

The healthcare sector is increasingly using nanotechnology to improve the accuracy and speed of tests and find out the causes of certain health issues. Nanomaterials may also help reduce the risks of misdiagnosis.

Higher quality medical imaging

Imaging tools like X-ray computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have become indispensable when doctors need a detailed view inside a patient’s body. To improve the quality of these images, specialised substances, called contrast agents, are used with both CT and MRI. 

However, some of these contrast agents cause unwanted side effects such as nausea or mild skin rashes. Nanoparticles can be used as alternatives to traditional agents as they have proved to cause fewer side effects.

Gold, bismuth and tungsten nanoparticles are used in CT scans as they help reduce the intensity of X-rays. This creates a better contrast and makes the final image clearer. For MRIs, different gadolinium, manganese, and iron-based nanoparticles are being investigated. 

The surface of these nanoparticles can be modified using different molecules to change how they behave in the body. This allows the nanoparticles to target specific tissues or cells, which can help to better detect cancer formations at an early stage or identify high risk atherosclerotic plaques that cause heart problems.

Faster, cheaper and more accurate biomolecular detection

Modern medicine also relies on the analysis of biological fluids such as blood and urine to detect specific biomolecules such as DNA, antibodies, and proteins that can indicate a disease. The detection and analysis of these biomolecules can ensure that each patient receives the most effective treatment. 

Nanomaterials can offer a quick and more reliable method to detect different biomarkers and to monitor how well a patient responds to a treatment. These methods use a variety of materials, including gold, silica, quantum dots and graphene-based materials. Their optical, magnetic and catalytic properties can be manipulated to enable different modes of detection.

Various biomolecules such as DNA can be attached to the surface of nanomaterials to form nanostructures. Together, they act as tiny nano flares that provide a signal whenever a specific disease marker is found in a sample of biological fluid. 

Wearable health sensors enabled by nanotechnology

The skin is our body’s largest organ. Sweat and other fluids under the skin have many biological markers that can tell us about our health. Since the skin, unlike most of our other organs, is exposed, we can use it to monitor our health without invasive testing. 
Wearable sensors are an expanding market and nanomaterials are expected to play an important role in their future development. For wearable sensors to work, they need to be flexible, lightweight, and accurately detect different biological signals. Thanks to their small size, nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes, graphene, and different metal nanoparticles make it possible to add miniature sensors into materials such as textiles or wearable devices.
Although many of these developments need more research – including assessments of their safety – nanomaterials will play an important role in medical diagnostics for years to come.