By Ann Griswold • Published: March 17th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Sometimes big things come in small packages. And in the emerging field of nanosurgery, the best packages are often too small to be seen with the naked eye.

Surgical tools have come a long way since the middle ages, when doctors wielded amputation knives and operated without anesthesia. Nowadays, even surgical lasers are becoming old news. The next thing on the horizon? Microscopic particles called nanosensors that could eliminate the need for surgery in cancer patients.

Nano comes from a Greek word that means “dwarf.” Nanosensors are about eighty-thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair… the perfect size to enter the bloodstream and patrol the body in search of abnormalities like tumor cells.

Scientists have engineered a variety of nanosensors that could one day replace lymph node biopsies, conventional surgery and even chemotherapy.

Some nanosensors are loaded with drugs that seek and destroy cancer cells without harming the healthy tissues nearby. The sensors can be activated by magnetic pulses and eventually break down in the body after completing their mission.

Other nanosensors can monitor the spread of cancer in the body. Scientists at the National Cancer Institute discovered that they could detect cancer cells in mice by labeling nanosensors with the contrast agents used in M-R-I screens. The sensors worked fast, identifying affected lymph nodes within thirty minutes of entering the rodents’ bloodstream.

Nanosensors are still in the early stages of development and face additional rounds of testing before they enter the surgical suite.