Nanotechnology in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries
Bionanotechnology is moving
forward rapidly. It will enhance our understanding of biology and how
biological systems work and is already helping resolve some of the pharma
and biotech industries' significant problems. Dr Mike Fisher
of the UK's Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network (NanoKTN)
gives an overview of its potential.
In 1959, American physicist Richard
Feynman made a speech at CalTech, where he stated that ‘the principles
of physics... do not speak against the possibility of manoeuvring things
atom by atom’ when discussing his vision of ‘a billion tiny factories,
which are manufacturing simultaneously’ .
This is widely acknowledged as the first reference to nanotechnology.
Put simply nanotechnology is the
technology of manipulating materials, devices, or systems at the
nanometer scale. The term therefore does not apply to a particular
industry sector, but can be applied across many. Nanotechnology can be
applied to diverse areas from cosmetics to computing and from textiles
to targeted drugs.
Currently the biotechnology and
pharmaceuticals industries are facing pressures to decrease their
expenditures as the total cost of getting a biologic drug to market has
spiralled to over $1.2 billion, according to Tufts Centre for the Study
of Drug Discovery .
Companies are therefore looking to improve the discovery and development
processes and gain more information about a new molecular entity (NME)
to allow go/no go decisions to be made about a drug much earlier in the
Nanotechnology has started to come to the
fore over the past few years as our knowledge and scientific
capabilities have allowed manipulations at the nanolevel. Although,
according to Frost & Sullivan
only a small proportion (less than 5%) of global government’s research
funding in nanotechnology has been applied to pharmaceuticals and
healthcare, with the majority in chemicals and semiconductors.
being said, there are numerous applications where nanotechnology is
being applied to challenges within the biotech and pharmaceuticals
industry, and in many cases industry is utilising technologies that fall
into the nanotech definition, without them classifying the work as
nanotech. This makes an accurate estimate of the extent of
nanotechnology usage within the bio & pharma industry difficult to
A further issue is that this field is new
and much of the work is blue-skies research and the applications being
predicted are as good as people’s imaginations allow them to be. For
example, will UC Berkley’s development of a bio-friendly nanowire light
source lead to the development of cellular endoscopy? Possibly, but we
are still far from achieving this. Distilling out areas where
nanotechnology can make a practical difference for drug development
companies now, can be difficult.
Driving the development
As healthcare improves, the world’s
population is aging. The proportion of retirees in comparison to the
economically active is growing. This is leading to increased downward
pressure on spending in healthcare services. In addition, the cost of
developing a drug is increasing. This is causing significant pressures
within industry to gain savings wherever possible. The use of
nanotechnology can help bring product discovery and development costs
down by improving efficiency and decreasing the risk of product failure.
The major areas where nanotechnology can
address problems in bio & pharma developments are listed and discussed
Nanotechnology has enhanced the drug
discovery process, through miniaturization, automation, speed and
reliability of assays. An additional benefit being seen is the decrease
in the amounts of expensive reagents through integration of
microfluidics with lab-on-a-chip systems.
Numerous systems have been developed over
the past few years that apply micro and nanotechnology (MNT) to detect
ligand interactions. For example, microcantilevers have been used as a
label free way of directly measuring binding kinetics of drug
candidates. Atomic Force Microscopy has also been demonstrated to have
the ability to map ligand receptor binding on the surface of live cells.
Here a functionalised AFM cantilever, combined with a confocal
microscope is used to correlate images obtained by light microscopy with
the presence or absence of receptor-ligand interaction. This can either
reveal where functional receptors are present in correlation with an
image of GFP-tagged receptors, or it can be used to examine the
downstream reactions of a cell to topical application of just a few
Drug delivery & formulation
A significant challenge in drug
development is delivering the drug to the right place in the body for it
to be effective. The ideal situation would be to target a drug to the
very cells that are diseased and to not affect those that are healthy.
In practice, many systemically delivered drugs distribute throughout the
body, often causing side effects. Often drugs can be potent in vitro,
but ineffective in vivo due to an inability to reach the affected
tissue or cells – for example crossing the blood brain barrier is a
Nanotechnology can be applied to drug
formulation and delivery systems in order to increase the delivery
efficiency, or target certain tissues or cells. Nano carriers such as
solid lipid particles, albumin, or polymer-based systems are being
developed to aid drug delivery.
An example of a non-targeted nanocarrier
is Abraxane (paclitaxel protein-bound particles for injectable
suspension). The active ingredient, paclitaxel is a cancer
chemotherapeutic originally delivered suspended in a non-ionic
surfactant (Cremophor EL). This surfactant often leads to
hypersensitivity reactions. By binding the drug to albumin
nanoparticles, Abraxane demonstrated a doubling of the response rate (as
compared to paclitaxel) in clinical trials and is approved by the FDA
for sale in the US.
As technology advances, nanochips and nano
arrays are becoming increasingly robust and accurate. By integrating
these arrays with portable instruments capable of detecting ligand
binding, etc on these chips, lab-on-a-chip systems can be produced,
providing inexpensive point of care tests. Improvements in lateral flow,
and robustness of the systems being created are allowing the development
of diagnostic devices for use outside of specialist clinical
biochemistry laboratories. The driving forces in the development of
these systems are accuracy, speed and simplicity as diagnosis moves from
centralised labs to the doctor’s surgery.
These systems have diverse applications,
from cardiac risk assessment to bioterror agent detection, and hold
promise for the use of stratified medicines, where genetic or other
markers segment patients more likely to respond. Ultimately this will
lead to supporting fully personalised medicine, delivered in the
The application of nanotechnology in
imaging is allowing greater resolution and accuracy. The technology is
paving the way for the future of stratified medicine. Using imaging
techniques, doctors may one day be able to tailor individual therapies
to the very molecules that distinguish a patient's cancer from other
cancer types. For example ‘quantum dots’ with proteins attached to the
surface are being developed. These dots can bind to certain receptors on
cells, for example in tumour cells. The quantum dots then allow high
resolution imaging of exactly where these cells are in the body,
allowing surgical removal and increasing the chances that tumour cells
are not missed during the procedure and decreasing the chance of
The field of bionanotechnology is moving
forward rapidly. There is no doubt that it will enhance our
understanding of biology and how biological systems work. Nanotechnology
is helping resolve some of the pharma and biotech industries'
significant problems. It has already enabled new formulations for drugs
that are commercially available, and there are a number of drugs in the
R&D pipeline or that are in the regulatory approval stage.
future, nanotechnology will enhance the drug discovery process, through
miniaturization, automation, speed and reliability of assays. It will
also allow greater selection of the right drug for the right patient and
enable the tests to support this decision process to be done in the
Dr Mike Fisher, Theme Manager — Bionano
& Nanomedicine, Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network (NanoKTN).
1. Feynman, R. (1959) There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. Engineering & Science. February 1960.
2. Tufts CSDD Outlook 2008.
Accessed 28 August 2008.
3. Safinia, L., (2008), Nanotechnology: Roadmap to Early
Diagnosis of Disease. Frost & Sullivan.
Accessed 26 August 2008.
Further information on nanotechnology
- Report on: Medical
Report on: Nanobiotechnologies applications, markets and companies
Report on: Nanotechnology. Revolutionizing R&D to Develop Smarter Therapeutics and