What is the tiniest thing you can think of? A pinhead? A flea? Those objects are definitely small but there are even smaller things, measured in the millionth part of a millimetre. We are talking about nanoparticles, small particles with specific properties that have potential applications in several fields, like in medicine.

Nanotechnology in medicine has allowed the development of new diagnostic and imaging techniques, and more effective therapeutic treatments, specifically aimed at damaged tissues and organs. To understand better how nanoparticles work we can imagine them as cars. We introduce therapeutic content and the nanoparticle ‘drives’ it directly to the target organ. By controlling the release of the drug, it can act in a more effective way. It also lowers the required dose, reducing the possible side effects and improving the quality of life of the patient.

“The first approval of using nanoparticles in medicine was for a fungus disease”, says Dr Fabrice Navarro, coordinator of New Deal and project leader in Nanomedicine at CEA-LETI Health Division. Thanks to the tools of nanotechnology, there have been great advances since then in treatment of diseases like cancer, cardiovascular or neurodegenerative diseases. Indeed, we can already find in the market applications for cancer treatment like in the case of breast cancer, where some techniques have been proved especially effective in metastasis. In addition, nanotechnology has improved diagnosis techniques: “with contrast agents, we can image solid tumours or troubles in a liver, for example, and there is literature that says that it can even reach the brain”, explains Dr Navarro. An approach that is still in development, but with very promising results, is the use of magnetic or gold nanoparticles in these techniques.

Dr Navarro points out two challenges on what science is working to improve. One is biodistribution: “nanoparticles can be used to deliver drugs to an inflamed area but the nanoparticle needs to arrive there”, as Dr Navarro explains. This is why researchers are studying different nanoparticles compositions to modulate behaviour. The other challenge is to know what is the right amount of therapeutic compound that the nanoparticle needs to become an effective therapy, for what scientists are investigating different compounds and delivery ways.

Now researchers are exploring to develop therapeutic treatment with nanotechnology in other chronic illnesses as inflammatory bowel diseases, like in New Deal. “What we do in New Deal is to use nanoparticles to transport siRNA into the target cells of the colon to then downregulate molecular targets that Janus Kinases (JAKs) are involved in several signalling pathways of anti-inflammatory processes”, explains Dr Navarro. An advantage that presents this method is that the nanoparticles used are bioasimilables. In this way, “we can recycle the components of the nanoparticles for our own body”, assures Dr Navarro, as they are lipid based. Also, the compound inside these nanoparticles -siRNA, a biological drug- is very sensitive so we only need a few of siRNA particles to be effective.

The future of nanomedicine seems very promising and is very likely that in a few years we could see nanoparticles applications in clinics in the market for several therapeutic approaches. “For a long time we used to deliver old drugs knowing chemical compounds, but now is the era of biological compounds and in that case the implementation of nanoparticles is even more relevant. We will see a lot of biological products for nanomedicine as we did in New Deal”.