Nanotechnology Lotion: The Diagnostic Tool of Tomorrow

Imagine smoothing some gentle lotion onto your arm. The next day, you snap a photo of your arm with your smartphone mounted with external optical filters. The image is immediately transmitted to your doctor, who examines it and gives you a clean bill of health.

Sound like science fiction? This might actually be how doctors diagnose skin diseases in the near future. The fascinating world of nanotechnology brings a completely new dimension to medical care. A topical lotion containing the technology offers promise as a convenient and low cost alternative to biopsies.

What is Nanotechnology?

The prefix nano comes from the ancient Greek word for dwarf. Science has taken it to mean one billionth of something; for example, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Put another way, 1/8 of an inch is wider than 3 million nanometer. Medical nanotechnology allows us to manipulate and handle viruses, cell components, and pieces of DNA using an incredible range of tiny tools.

Some controversy surrounds nanotechnology, as its detractors point out that we don’t know whether or not it’s safe. While that is certainly true, it’s also true that natural nanoparticles surround us in our environment. The fact is that we don’t know enough about the effects of man-made nanoparticles on the human body. The other difficulty with nanotechnology is that the field is still in its infancy, and scaling up production at a sustainable cost has so far not been possible.

Both issues are sure to be resolved in the coming years, and in the meantime, researchers keep finding amazing uses for the little particles.

Lotion as a Diagnostic Tool

One such incredible nano-invention is a novel diagnostic technology that uses topical lotion to detect skin tissue biomarkers for diagnosis. Of course it’s not just any lotion; this lotion contains “NanoFlares”—microscopic balls of nucleic acid with gold cores.  Generally, when your doctor observes an abnormal lesion on your skin, he sends you for a biopsy. A biopsy is a surgical procedure in which a piece of your skin is removed to check for disease. They’re usually inconvenient  and may cause pain, scarring, and infection.

The developers of the NanoFlare are hopeful that their NanoFlare lotion may one day replace biopsies in diagnosing skin diseases. When the NanoFlares are applied topically, they can penetrate the skin and interact with skin cells. In the case of abnormal biomarkers, reporter flares separate from the gold core, and become fluorescent. Specialized cameras can detect the florescence that indicates the presence of disease. If there is no disease, the NanoFlares remain inactive, with no emission signals.

The scientists behind the NanoFlare, David C. Yeo and Chenjie Xu of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, say their new technology has a wealth of applications (no pun intended). A patient could self-apply the lotion in their own home at their own time, making this an extremely convenient mode of diagnosis. They would then either go to their doctor’s office for imaging, or use their own phone fitted with specialized cameras. The lotion could even be used to monitor the progression of the disease in real time, and gauge how successful treatment is.

Like the entire field of nanotechnology, NanoFlare lotion holds endless promise. Time will tell whether it will ever become anything more than interesting reading, but in the meantime, it’s fascinating to ponder the possibilities.

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