In the cult classic “Fantastic Voyage,” scientist Jan Benes escaped the Iron Curtain only to be attacked on American soil, nearly taking the key to indefinite miniaturization of matter to the grave.
With the aid of a microscopic submarine, a five-person team had 60 minutes to travel through his body, remove the blood clot threatening his life, and escape.
The promise of the movie — machine-aided shrinking — has yet to be fulfilled.
But nanotechnology — which has the ability to see, measure and manipulate matter at the atomic scale — is changing the way we store computer data, make clothing and treat cancer, according to documents from Debra Kaiser, chief of the ceramics division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg.
The federal agency encourages this emerging sector by working with U.S. industry to make and measure things on the nanoscale, said Lloyd Whitman, deputy director of NIST’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
“A lot of people think of nanotech as the people who are going to build that submarine [from ‘Fantastic Voyage’],” said Robert Celotta, director of the Center for Nanoscale Science at NIST. “We’re already dependent on it.”
Public and private organizations in Montgomery County are making it happen.
The science of the small
Nanotechnology is the science of small. If you take a dime and cut it into 1,000 layers, that is a micrometer. Slice a layer into 1,000 more layers, you have a nanometer, which is just a few atoms thick.
There is no official definition of nanoscale, but Kaiser said it generally is regarded as anything smaller than 100 nanometers.
Nanoparticles have been used for thousands of years to color stained glass, and are commonly used in cosmetics and personal-care products.
NIST is helping find out if they are safe for humans and the environment.
It features four labs and two facilities that allow private business to use million-dollar pieces of equipment to prototype parts. The $5 million electron beam lithography system, which can be used to create computer chips and other products, costs about $350 per hour, Celotta said.
The Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, a NIST user facility that enables research and development at the nanoscale, has helped improve dental implants and magnetic computer storage, and recently hosted IBM, which was prototyping parts for its next super computer, he said.
“You can make a nanomaterial out of almost anything,” said Vincent Hackley, a research chemist at NIST. “It was suddenly recognized that they may behave differently [than larger materials].”
In the past decade, scientists figured out how to manipulate single atoms but still are developing techniques to measure nanoparticles. At that scale, properties of matter, such as color, can change.
Thanks to nanoparticles, the fair-skinned can apply sun-blocking titanium dioxide and zinc oxide without a white, chalky cream. At the nanoscale, both are transparent.
But a debate rages about whether the ingredients actually increase the risk of developing cancer.
Titanium dioxide is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
Studies by Dr. Yinfa Ma, a chemistry professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and his graduate student Quingbo Yang, suggest that when exposed to sunlight, zinc oxide can increase the risk of skin cancer, according to a May news release from the university.
These are questions that NIST could help answer.
Researchers at NIST and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, provided the first evidence that cupric oxide nanoparticles, a compound used as a pigment for coloring glass and ceramics, and other uses, can damage plant DNA and stunt development of roots and shoots, according to a paper published in the July edition of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
A similar study will look at the impact of titanium dioxide nanoparticles on rice plants, according to a news release by NIST spokesman Michael Newman.
The next frontier
The next frontier in cancer is nanomedicine, which could revolutionize the field — from diagnosis to treatment — in the next decade.
The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda spends about $450 million on nanotechnology every year, taking a multidisciplinary approach that is characteristic of the field, said Dr. Piotr Grodzinski, director of the National Cancer Institute’s Alliance for Nanotechnology. The NIH budget is about $31.8 billion.
Chemotherapy drugs have side effects such as hair loss, nausea and fatigue because they indiscriminately kill cells, both cancerous and healthy. New drug delivery systems target cancer cells by combining chemotherapy with nanoparticles, he said. The result could be fewer side effects for drugs currently, or soon to be, undergoing clinical trials.
Among the companies focusing on nanomedicine is Rexahn Pharmaceuticals in Rockville, said Dr. D.J. Kim, vice president and head of research and development at Rexahn.
Rexahn is reformulating Docetaxel, a drug used to treat breast and lung cancers. He said the next-generation drug will target cells with receptors that tend to be over-expressed in certain cancers. If clinical trials are successful, he said it could be on the market within 10 years.
Perhaps more promising are nano-based diagnostic technology that could boost survival rates by identifying cancer sooner, Grodzinski said.
The future of nanotech
Nanotech soon could find itself taking flight.
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms that, when rolled into a tube, can be used to create strong but lightweight bulletproof vests, or materials for airplanes and satellites, Whitman said.
“Depending on how they are made, they have really interesting properties,” he said. “One reason you might put them in an airplane, they can conduct electricity.”
He said the material also could have military applications.
There are few businesses that call themselves nanotech, but the science is integrated throughout Montgomery County, said Janis Pitts, director of life sciences strategy for the Montgomery Department of Economic Development.
She said the county’s information technology sector, which also is dependent on nanoscale science, is larger than those working in the field of life sciences.
“All these products, people are trying to make them smaller, quicker, better, faster,” she said. “New technologies are what help that happen.”