Comedian Robin Williams got his start on TV in 1978 in the comedy “Mork and Mindy,” about a wacky alien, Mork (Williams), who comes to live in a boarding house run by a cute young woman (Pam Dawber). In that popular sitcom, Mork would always greet people by saying, “Nanu, Nanu,” which was “Hello” on his home planet of Ork.
Thirty-five years later, “Nanu, Nanu” has become “Nano, Nano”*-as in nanotechnology, the creation of extremely small machines designed to do specific jobs.
We’re talking incredibly tiny: simple machines called “nanobots” that are only 0.1-10 micrometers (approx. 4 millionths of an inch to 1/2,500th of an inch) in size, but capable of getting into extremely small spaces to do their work.
One place that scientists see nanotechnology doing incredible feats is in the human body. Researchers have already experimented with tasking nanobots to attack cancer cells with deadly accuracy, delivering poisons directly to their nucleuses while completely avoiding healthy cells.
Closer to home, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently reported that they are working on a “nanogel,” a jelly-like medicinal preparation crammed full of insulin-bearing nanoparticles, that could eventually eliminate the need for type 1 (and many type 2) patients to constantly monitor their blood sugar levels and inject insulin.
The concept is simple: Nanoparticles sense the body’s glucose levels and release an appropriate amount of insulin to correct for highs.
This approach has already worked in lab mice, with single injections of the gel lasting up to 10 days. The nanoparticles are made of polysaccharides, organic molecules that are compatible with the human body and eventually will degrade with no ill-effects.
The drawback MIT scientists note is that the gel is slower to respond to rising glucose levels and correct for them than the human pancreas. So the next step in developing a commercially viable nanogel for people with diabetes is to get the nanoparticles to respond like a pancreas to blood glucose changes-in other words, incredibly fast.
This is a wonderful concept for managing diabetes. It wouldn’t be a cure, but would hold the promise of relieving many people from the burden of constant self-checking and injecting.
It also points the way to an even more dramatic approach: Using nanobots to deter the body’s T “helper” cells from mistakenly attacking pancreatic beta cells in type 1s. Combined with increasingly sophisticated genetic tests that can predict the onset of type 1, such a therapy could act as a preventative, much like a routine inoculation, by preventing the T cell attack from ever beginning or succeeding.
Nano therapies will not be outright cures. But their promise of relieving insulin users of constant, often exhausting vigilance would certainly make the wait for a cure much more endurable.
As Mork might say today, “Here’s to tiny robots, Nano, Nano!”
(*Nano comes from the ancient Greek word nannos, “little old man” or “dwarf.” In modern science, it has come to mean a thing or a span of time that is extraordinarily small.)