Advances in science have helped medical researchers continually drill deeper, investigating increasingly smaller particles that are often the very foundations of life.

Advances in the fields of genetic manipulation to nanotechnology often yield breakthroughs that fundamentally alter the course of research for significant medical problems like cancer.

Here are a few of the more interesting discoveries focusing on tiny particles that have large-scale potential.

1. Organ tissues created with the help of non-human material

Scientists have recently developed the ability to transform non-human cells into organ tissue, and one major coup happened when researchers at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology cultivated heart tissue cells on the framework of a protein found in spider web silk.

Researchers hope this type of regeneration will one day be used to avoid the problem of patients rejecting transplanted organs.

Spider web silk looks delicate, but it’s stronger than steel and more elastic than nylon, making it the perfect framework on which to grow organ cells in a laboratory environment. Finding an adequate framework has been a major challenge in furthering this type of research, scientists say.

The cardiac cells generated while using this process were fully functioning, and capable of contracting just like cells inside the human heart.

2. New DNA editing tool brings designer babies one step closer to reality

DNA determines not only the color of our hair and eyes, but often a person’s risk for obesity, cancer, heart disease, and possibly chronic pain. But what if we could edit DNA?

It’s possible and has been done for decades, but a new tool called CRISPR is expanding the horizons of possibility for researchers.

CRISPR edits DNA faster and more precisely than earlier tools, making the tactic easier to experiment with and bringing it several steps closer to more practical applications.

The tool has already been used to genetically engineer monkeys who were born with specific mutations and prevent HIV from infecting human cells. The same process of editing DNA using CRISPR could ultimately give rise to what sci-fi films have been predicting for years—designer babies, reports Gizmodo.

Although special-order babies are not here yet, the CRISPR tool has huge implications for the future of genetic manipulation used to treat and prevent diseases.

3. Human embryos genetically modified for the first time

Researchers in China have genetically altered human embryos for the first time in history, using the aforementioned CRISPR tool. The efforts weren’t very reliable, with just 71 of 86 embryos altered surviving. And only a very small percentage of the surviving embryos were found to contain the new genetic material, reports ScienceDaily.

Even though some genetic changes were successfully made, the changes inadvertently caused a chain reaction of secondary, unintended variations. This leaves serious obstacles to overcome before the method can be used on a wider scale, but the announcement is historic and for the first time identifies potential pitfalls that scientists must work through.

These embryos were so-called non-viable ones obtained from fertility clinics that didn’t have the ability to grow into actual babies. However, these specific efforts are highly controversial and not legal in all countries. Nevertheless, researchers say the work will continue and expect that additional research with genetically modified fetuses will be released over the next year.

4. Nanotechnology increases precision of drug delivery

The typical method of taking medicine these days involves swallowing pills or receiving liquids that the body absorbs systemically, even if the treatment is only needed by part of the body.

Nanotechnology, the study of manipulating extremely small particles, is leading to breakthroughs helping medical researchers deliver drugs only to the cells that need it.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discovered one method to deliver drugs in this way using carbon nanoparticles. The research is remarkable in its speed—the particles were created in only a few hours—and accessibility—the small ingredient list included rather ordinary items, such as food-grade molasses.

The carbon particles produced by this experiment were small enough to bypass the immune system. They also have the ability to reflect light, which is important for easy detection inside the body. Although this isn’t the first time such particles have been created, this process is newsworthy because it’s so fast. Other methods can take several days, not hours. Researcher Dipanjan Pan says:

“If you have a microwave and honey or molasses, you can pretty much make these particles at home.”

The recipe involves mixing the ingredients and then cooking them for a few minutes. The resulting charred mix is actually nanoparticles.

The ease of creation increases accessibility for future labs looking to use this technology to further research and reveal even more practical uses.

To test the application, the Illinois researchers applied a melanoma drug to the nanoparticles and applied the mixture to pig skin. Once the pig’s skin warmed the solution beyond room temperature, the anti-cancer drug released into the skin.

Researchers say the solution can be manipulated to deliver multiple drugs and to varying depths of skin by changing the ingredients.

5. Stem cells help fight cancer

Stem cells are a promising new therapy for a variety of conditions, and research is yielding exciting results for their potential to save the lives of people with cancer.

Research from the American Chemical Society found that specially designed nanoparticles are able to target cancer stem cells that are believed to cause a recurrence. People receive treatment and may be declared disease-free, but cancerous stem cells sometimes remain and may develop into new tumors.

These recurring cancers can be difficult to kill with conventional treatment like standard chemotherapy. Cancer cells often mutate to protect themselves against treatment and when they survived powerful medicines the first time, they’re often able to evade them a second time, too.

But this research showed that when treatments are delivered to targeted cells using nanotechnology, the results were powerful and more effective than using the drug alone. This trial focused on mice. Further research is needed before the method can be used on humans.

What do you think about the new possibilities for medicine through genetic manipulation and nanotechnology?

Image by IAEA Imagebank via Flickr

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