holds the potential to transform healthcare over the
next few years. From a robot the size of a blood cell,
swimming around in a patient’s bloodstream, detecting
biochemical parameters such as blood sugar, so that
the treatments used to control abnormal levels can
be carefully monitored and adapted for the individual.
To toothbrushes with built-in sensors to detect abnormalities
in saliva, alerting users to get themselves checked
It may sound like science fiction, but the ability
to work at the atomic level to change the physical
properties of materials to create new structures –
nanotechnology – is becoming the new science of healthcare.
The Nanoscience Centre at Cambridge
University is one of only a few in Europe investigating
the potential of nanotechnology, not just in the NHS
but in the wider commercial world.
Mark Welland, professor of
nanotechnology at the centre, says: “Nanotechnology
will have a significant impact on health and on all
our lives. Our role is to look at projects where an
interdisciplinary approach can be most effective.
One of our projects is looking at some of the aspects
of disease processes in Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes,
with the idea of applying nanotechnology to identify
some important fundamental properties of structures
formed as these diseases progress. This will give
us an insight into how the disease progresses and,
perhaps ultimately, the pathology in the body.”
One of the greatest potentials
of nanotechnology is the development of sophisticated
diagnostic tools, another area being examined at Cambridge.
Mark says: “One aim is to provide
diagnosis which is fast, extremely sensitive and uses
just a small amount of tissue or sample. Therefore,
we want to make devices that can identify processes
at a single molecule level – in a drop of blood, a
puff of breath. Early diagnosis leading to early treatment
must be one of its (nanotechnology) applications.”
The British Government is keen
to harness such new healthcare technologies in the
NHS and has created a structure enabling greater co-operation
between the health and social care sectors and industry.
The Healthcare Industries Task Force (HITF) outlined
its plans in November 2004, including a modernised
device evaluation service (DES) and a new innovation
centre, which will help accelerate the adoption of
innovative medical technologies for the benefit of
From April 2005, the DES will
develop into a new service managed by the NHS Purchasing
and Supply Agency (PASA) to inform purchasing decisions
better. In addition, healthcare technology co-operatives
will be piloted as academic centres of excellence,
pioneering specialist treatments and techniques.
The overall aim is to ensure
that technologies and innovations, which are proven
and worth investing in, are available to the whole
NHS rather than just pockets of the service.
Source: PrimaryCare, an Edition
NHS Information Authority 11th March 2005