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October 1st, 2011
A Small Revolution: In fewer than 15 years, nanomedicine has gone from fantasy to reality.
Many trace the origins of nanomedicine to a talk Richard Feynman gave at Caltech in 1959—There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. During the lecture, Feynman proposed the idea of chemical manipulation at the atomic level and suggested that patients might one day "swallow the surgeon" in the form of tiny machines. Some 50 years later, researchers are still working to realize these dreams, but Feynman would no doubt be impressed by the list of nanomedicine applications being developed today. Nanomaterials have made their way into drug-delivery systems and diagnostics, and are quickly becoming essential basic research tools.
Of course, the reality of nanomedicine doesn't exactly fit Feynman's fantasies. The silicon chip boom of the 1980s gave chemists the technology they needed to manipulate substances at the nanoscale. But chemists weren't necessarily thinking about biomedical applications when they first started working with nanomaterials. "People were playing around with matter partly because they could," says Paul Alivisatos, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a pioneer in nanotechnology. One of the most famous discoveries of this exploratory period was the buckyball, a carbon nanoparticle with a unique geodesic-like structure that earned its discoverers the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry, even though it wasn't obvious at the time that there would be any real-world applications for so-called fullerenes. "I think it was a real evolution in the field when it became more clear that there could be a lot of impact in medicine," says Alivisatos. "Applications emerged in areas people hadn't anticipated." Today fullerenes are being developed as drug carriers and for other nanomedicine applications.
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