Nanotechnology An Enduring Bridge Between Engineering and Medicine

Sarah Hurst Petrosko, Catherine A Fromen, Evelyn Auyeung, Joseph M. DeSimone, Chad A Mirkin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Nanotechnology has matured over the past 20 years from a field focused on understanding miniaturization and its consequences to one defined by the rational design, synthesis, and manipulation of nanoscale objects. Many advances in nanotechnology have had an extraordinary impact specifically on the medical field, enabling some of the most meaningful developments in diagnostics, imaging, and therapeutics.

Nanotechnology represents a “third wave” of advancement in medical science. The first wave was initiated 60 years ago by Watson and Crick’s seminal discovery of the DNA structure (Watson and Crick 1953), which led to a paradigm shift in understanding of cell biology. The second originated with the birth of the field of genomics, which led to unparalleled insight into disease origins and drug response. The third wave of nanotechnology-based advances in medical understanding has been spurred by the rapid development of sophisticated new nanomaterials and processes that provide significant capabilities as compared to conventional approaches. In addition, the field has created a renaissance in analytical tool development that has enhanced the way researchers and physicians can study, track, and treat disease.

Medical breakthroughs using nanotechnology are made possible by the length scales of many biological systems. Nanomaterials, structures having at least one dimension less than 100 nm, are the ideal size to efficiently interact with biological structures, and they can act as scaffolds for the attachment and organization of a variety of biomolecules into useful architectures. Using robust synthetic methods, researchers can engineer nanoconstruct platforms on demand and thus create entities that offer multifunctionality essential for biological function and control in specific medical applications. This paradigm has been central to many of the most successful nanotechnology-based innovations.

In this article we highlight selected materials and tools that straddle engineering and medicine. Many of these originated from basic benchtop research at the university level and, in a short period of time, have been the catalyst for the establishment of successful startup companies with products and systems that have received, or are trying to obtain, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Hundreds of nanotechnology-based technologies and products have emerged via this developmental pathway (Etheridge et al. 2013). We do not discuss each of these top innovations in depth; instead, we refer the reader to our timeline (Figure 1) and the associated list of resources at the end of this article. As representative examples, we describe one breakthrough material—spherical nucleic acids (SNAs)—and one enabling tool—particle replication in nonwetting templates (PRINT).
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7-15
Number of pages9
JournalThe Bridge
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2013


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