Yes, a few medicines do already contain nanoparticles. The special properties of these materials are mainly used to deliver active substances to specific sites in the body. Nanoparticles can, for instance, overcome the blood-brain barrier and transport drugs directly into the brain, which could be helpful when treating neurological diseases. Also, special coatings can be added to prevent the immune system from classifying the nanoparticles and their drug as foreign bodies and trying to fighting them off. Another way the technology can be used medically is in diagnosis. Scientists can modify nanoparticles so that they only bind to certain cells – cancer cells, for instance – that can then be imaged using technology such as MRI.
A well-known example of a medical application of nanoparticles is Abraxane, which received EU approval in 2009 and is used for treating cancer. Abraxane is made up of nanoparticles bound to a protein called albumin that in turn binds the active substance, paclitaxel. The chemical properties of paclitaxel mean that it does not dissolve easily in water. Binding it to albumin, which is highly soluble, ensures that it can be transported through the blood and taken up by the cancer cells.
Saskia Blank of the Ideas 2020 team answered this question.