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February 27th, 2010
They're built by the billions and are 1,000 times smaller than the width of a hair.
They can change their colour, glow in lustrous hues, travel like magic to desired areas of the body and one day, soon, will almost certainly be finding and curing cancer.
Sound like medical pixie dust?
Welcome to the wondrous world of nanoparticles, which are on the verge of changing the way we treat and diagnose a host of ailments around the world.
"The field is growing exponentially, investment in the field is growing exponentially," says University of Toronto medical engineer Warren Chan. "And in the next 10 to 15 years you're going to see an exponential growth in terms of products," says Chan, 35, a pioneer in the incipient field of nanomedicine.
"Stars, spheres, rods, triangles, almost any kind of structure we can see with our eyes, you can make 1,000 or a million times smaller," says Chan, who is an acknowledged pioneer in the field. "But it's not just that you can make these pretty structures that small, it's that the properties of the material ... can be changed by changing the size or shape of the material,"
Properties such as colour, electrical conductivity and magnetism, can be altered by shifting their shape or dimensions.
By coating nanoparticles with substances that recognize and bind to molecules that are exclusive to the surface of cancer cells, you can essentially make a tumour into a trap.
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