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Nanomedicine is the medical application of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) — a still-developing science dedicated to constructing microscopic biomechanical devices like nanomachines and nanorobots. These devices are so small they are measured in nanometers, or one billionths of a meter. Molecular Nanotechnology aims to manipulate atoms and molecules in a precise, controlled manner. Applied to medicine, nanorobots would be programmed for specific biological tasks and injected into the blood in solution to work at the cellular level to do everything from repairing tissue, to cleaning arteries, attacking cancer cells and viruses like AIDS, and even reversing the aging process.
As fantastic as these claims sound, scientists believe we could see such advances within three decades.
Virtually all disease, injury and wear to the body can be traced to the cellular level. Current medical technology does not provide a means for doctors to treat selective cells or "edit" disease from genetic code. Instead comparatively crude tools are used that themselves tax the body. Surgery, while lifesaving, is also an invasive process that causes the body significant stress. In many cases treatment involves removing entire segments of the body leaving a patient scarred or without the ability to bear children, all of which affects quality of life. If an organ is destroyed a patient is relegated to waiting on a donor list. Drugs often treat the byproduct of a problem, not the problem itself. At best, drugs effect the entire body rather than delivering medicine directly where it is needed. Chemotherapy indiscriminately kills cells, healthy and cancerous, yet cancer sometimes returns.
Nanomedicine's promise is to take humankind a giant step forward in how health is maintained and illness is treated. If born out, in vivo nanorobots would have the ability to travel directly to the problem cells and repair whatever malady exists at the cellular level without added trauma, pain, or disfigurement.
Nanorobots are so tiny they would work in swarms, injected into the bloodstream in aqueous solution. For the first generations of people treated by nanomedicine, nanorobots might only perform very simple tasks. They might monitor body chemistry (for diabetics, for instance) or they might carry medicine directly to cancerous cells. Later incarnations of nanorobots are expected to eradicate disease through prevention at an early stage, making later drug treatments unnecessary.
It is believed that nanorobots will repair organs by traveling to the organ itself and regenerating healthy tissue where it is needed, putting an end to donor lists. Some scientists believe they will be able to reverse spinal damage and paralysis by repairing nerve, cartilage and bone. Regeneration of limbs will ultimately be possible. It may even be possible to reverse the aging process itself by repairing, and perhaps preventing, age-related wear on the body. The human lifespan and quality of life is expected to extend far beyond its current state.
Eventually healthcare would operate from a wholly preventative posture. With a simple means of early detection and repair, there would be far less sickness to treat.
Nanomedicine's other promise is to drastically improve the quality of life even as it extends it. Erasing wrinkles, ridding the body of excess fat and cellulite, strengthening muscle and bone, restoring hair, and repairing vision are all theoretically possible.
Nanomedicine is unique among healthcare practices for a number of reasons. Its molecular tools will be able to be manufactured in pollution-free desktop "nanofactories" making nanomedicine highly affordable. It is also highly portable and easily administered, with much of the treatment self-directed or programmed, a scenario that does not restrict itself to industrial infrastructure, but lends itself to third world nations and harkens an end to diseases like HIV and AIDS.
If nanomedicine's prospects bring concerns of overpopulation, molecular nanotechnology also proposes nanorobots to clean the air, remove pollutants from the drinking water and oceans, and restore our ecosystems. It creates a means to not only support a population that lives longer, but to support it in a way that is healthy for the planet and does not require stripping it of its natural resources. MNT and nanomedicine are green technologies that compliment one another.
In the long run, visionary scientists see MNT as a possible means to prepare for space colonization by sending nanorobots and nanomachines to build structures and create ecosystems on other planets. It has even been suggested that nanomedicine applied in tomorrow's world might include altering the human physiology in order to adapt better to the atmospheric conditions of other worlds.
Long term hopes aside, the immediate future of nanomedicine is full of promise for a generation born that will never know what it's like to grow old as it grows wise, or to suffer with disease. Though most scientists won't speculate on how long a human body will live when perfect health can be maintained, it's certain that lives would extend far beyond what we see today.
It's not a stretch to say that nanomedicine and molecular nanotechnology, in their best light, could lead humankind and the planet to a new era of health and longevity. If they deliver even a portion of what they promise, miracles might be just over the next horizon. However, some experts believe potential dangers require greater attention.