SUPER SMALL, REALLY BIG
Broadly defined, nanomedicine is the application of nanotechnology for medical purposes. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre, too small to be detected with a conventional microscope; but it is at a scale of less than 100 nanometres that biological molecules and structures within living cells operate.
Still in its infancy, this area of medicine belongs more to the future of medicine than its present. This future, however, is already on the horizon and brimming with promise. Nanomedicine holds a key (if not the key) to the transition to personalized medicine. The increasing importance of nanomedicine stems from its ability to diagnose and target treatment of disease more precisely. Israel and the Scandinavian countries occupy a prominent place in nanomedical research. In addition, although the migration from university lab to industry has just begun, Scandinavian and Israeli companies are among the trailblazers developing nano-based diagnostic tools, drug delivery systems and treatments.
Less than Microscopic is More
Nanomedicine may deal with the ultra-small, but the hype surrounding it is enormous. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the technology today is living up to this hype. Preliminary research tends to support the claim that nanomedicine has striking advantages over existing medical technologies. It can be used to test cell response to various drugs and vaccines and be instrumental in rendering faster, at times even immediate, diagnostic results in disease detection. It can enable more precise treatment, targeting diseased organs and cells without affecting healthy tissue and avoids many of the adverse side effects associated with current treatments. Nano-scale drug delivery can overcome many of the physical barriers currently obstructing drug delivery to tumours and cells.
While the technology could be instrumental in the treatment of any number of diseases, much of the focus of current basic and clinical research is in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The extensive collateral damage currently associated with chemotherapy and radiation adds to the urgency of discovering alternative treatments.
In diagnostics, for example, contrast agents developed from nanoparticles can be used with imaging equipment to screen cancer more effectively, detecting smaller or more elusive tumours early on. Nano-materials can also be instrumental in developing sensors which can be used in innovative, non-invasive diagnostic devices.
Breaching the Barrier
In the treatment of cancer, nanomedicine can be employed not only in the discovery of new drugs but in improving the bioavailability of drugs already on the market. The treatment of brain cancer is a case in point. The blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from harmful substances in the blood system, is a major hurdle in pharmacological treatment. Yet nano-sized molecules may be capable of penetrating it, making the pharmacological treatment of brain tumours more effective. This could obviate the need for brain surgery in many cases and improve the longevity and quality of life of brain cancer patients. Nanomedicine can target specific organs for drug delivery, localize dosage or control the release of the drug in the system. Hence anti-cancer agents can be targeted to a specific tumour, triggering an immune response which stays within it.
INNItiang a National Nanotech Network
Nanoscience was declared a national priority project in Israel in 2007. INNI, The Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative (www.nanoisrael.org) was set up with the goal of creating and coordinating a research infrastructure at Israel’s six leading universities to promote the development of nanotech industries. A triangular financing mechanism was established, which provides matched government/university/private donation funding for nanotech research. In the six years since INNI’s inception, Israel has succeeded in fostering academic collaboration between the various university centres and in attracting world-class scientists to the initiative.
In 2012 INNI appointed Tel Aviv University to lead a consortium of originally 11, but now 12, labs from four Israeli universities (http://nano.tau.ac.il/fta/about.html) on “Nanomedicines for Personal Theranostics”, i.e., the combination of diagnostics and therapeutic treatments. Prof. Dan Peer, head of the consortium, views the insights derived from nanomedicine as crucial in the development of important tools for new selective therapeutic strategies. “It will enable the design, synthesis and characterization of ‘magic bullet’-like medicines which not only enable the specific targeting of drugs but lead to significantly safer and more effective therapies”.
Since its inception in 2012, the program has gained significant traction. It is in the process of recruiting two new faculty members in addition to the one recruited in 2013. “Ties with global companies and discussions with two other potential corporate partners are underway”, says Peer. “We also have connections with iNano in Aarhus and with the Centre for Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology at Copenhagen University.”
In Scandinavia, nanomedical research is driven primarily by the region’s leading universities.
The University of Copenhagen houses the Nanoscience Centre, an inter-disciplinary hub spanning the natural and exact sciences which hosts fifteen separate institutes and labs. The Bio-nanotechnology and Nanomedicine Laboratory (http://nano.ku.dk/english/research/nanobio) and the Centre for Pharmaceutical Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology (http://nano.ku.dk/english/research/cpnn) are the two university biomedicine labs. A recently announced Nano Centre project which is being conducted in collaboration with Novo Nordisk A/S (www.novonordisk.com) focuses on how the G protein receptors, which signal the feeling of satiation, are associated with diseases like obesity, diabetes and asthma.
In addition, the Nanoscience Centre houses two Centres of Excellence, one being the Lundbeck Foundation for Biomembranes in Nanomedicine (www.nanomedicine.ku.dk/english).
The Lundbeck Foundation Centre was established in 2010 at the University’s Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology as a five-year program. Its focus is the understanding of cell-to-cell signalling which could eventually lead to the development of prototype nano-biosensors and nano-containers for drug delivery.
The Lundbeck Foundation has also set up a nanomedical centre at Denmark’s Aarhus University. LUNA (www.nanomedicine.au.dk) stands for the “Lundbeck Foundation Nanomedicine Centre for Individualized Management of Tissue Damage and Regeneration”. The Centre’s focus is on the treatment of cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases. The iNano Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (http://inano.au.dk) is also situated in Aarhus.
In Sweden, the Swedish Medical Nanoscience Centre (http://www.medicalnanoscience.se) at the Karolinska Institute serves as the hub for nanomedical research. The goal is the development of new therapies and medical devices with an eye to ultimate commercialization. It brings biologists together with engineers to address medical problems collaboratively. The Centre is funded in part by VINNOVA and the industrial conglomerate Carl Bennet AB, parent of the medical technology company, Getinge AB. The Medical Nanoscience Centre is conducting research in five areas: cancer, infection biology, neuroscience, tissue engineering and the development of new medical devices.
In Finland, the Centre for Drug Research (www.cdr.fi) at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Pharmacology leads nanomedical research. Focusing on early stage drug and drug delivery development, CDR brings together biological, computational biology and material sciences to develop new pharmaceutical technologies.
In Norway, the Norwegian NanoMedicine Network website (www.sintef.no/Projectweb/Nanomedicine) lists more than 25 academic, hospital and business sector members.
Israeli Scandinavian Collaboration
Given the human and physical resources invested in nanomedicine both in Israel and Scandinavia, the potential for collaboration is substantial. Israel, Sweden and Norway are members of the EU’s ERA-NET Nanomed II program (www.euronanomed.net). The ERA-NET initiative provides researchers with the means to initiate and implement trans-national medical research as well as a framework for funding this research. Under the program, each participating country finances its own researchers. The added value of the program is derived not only from the convergence of brain power but from the avoidance of redundancy in research endeavours.
One NANOMED II project, entitled VOLGACORE (Volatile Biomarkers for Early Detection and Characterization of Gastric and Colorectal Neoplasms), has brought together, among others, researchers from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology (http://www.technion.ac.il/en/) and the Karolinska Institute. The project they are developing is a non-invasive, easy-to-use device for the early detection of gastric and colorectal cancer through biomarkers detected in exhaled breath. Essentially the device will be an artificial electronic nose comprised of nanomaterial-based sensors. Funding for the Technion is provided by the Israeli Ministry of Health’s Office of the Chief Scientist, while the Swedish Research Council is underwriting the research conducted by the Karolinska Institute. In total, the ERA-NET NANOMED initiative has thus far allocated approximately €32 million to trans-national research in nanomedicine.