An advanced, cutting-edge nanotechnology research and development centre is being proposed in Wales.
The new £21.6m Centre for NanoHealth at Swansea University will put Wales at the forefront of the incipient nano revolution and, crucially, see research turned into potentially life-saving developments for patients.
AdvertisementThe centre is thought to be the first of its kind in Europe and will bring together experts at the university's schools of medicine and engineering.
They in turn will work closely with clinicians to ensure that any developments can be properly tested and, if effective, will eventually be used by patients.
Professor Huw Summers, chair of nanohealth at Swansea University's school of engineering, told Madeleine Brindley of Western Mail : "As an engineer I may try to build something that will be fantastic but utterly useless - we have to have this contact with clinicians to ensure that what we are creating will work."
The key to more effective treatments - and even cure - is thought to lie in earlier and better diagnosis of a disease.
And it is here that nanotechnology could come into the fore.
The Swansea centre will focus primarily on devices and sensors capable of detecting tiny changes in the body which could indicate the very early stages of disease.
"Nanotechnology can give you more sensitive detection," Dr Steve Conlan, co-director of the Centre said. "It has the potential to detect very low levels of a protein which we can't currently do, or which you would need a huge machine to find.
"Getting patients to such tests is limited because the current technology is either very expensive or very big.
"By creating smaller devices capable of detecting these low levels of protein means that they are more accessible and more accessible in a community care situation - in a GP surgery, or possibly in a pharmacy."
Prof Summers added: "We are moving away from the situation where you go to a GP surgery to give a blood sample and have to come back a week later for the result.
"As soon as a single molecule is identified as a marker for a certain disease, nanotechnology devices should be able to be produced to detect it.
"And we're talking about devices that could give an immediate read out and result."
Such devices and sensors would allow researchers and scientists to detect biomarkers - proteins and molecules - in real time, acting as an early-warning system of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
They could also help to quickly determine whether someone is fertile.
Pro Steve Wilks, co-director of the Centre for NanoHealth, said: "In-vivo sensing is one of the holy-grail technologies for the medical profession. By harnessing nanotechnology, scientists and researchers can develop sensors that operate at a level of sensitivity in the parts per billion range.
"It is anticipated that these sensors will allow the detection of certain disease biomarkers within the body at a very early stage and transmit this data to a GP or clinician making early intervention possible."
The technology could also be used to monitor patients prescribed Warfarin - patients have to undergo regular blood tests to ensure they are receiving the correct dose.
But nanotechnology sensors could eventually allow patients to continuously monitor themselves at home, to ensure they are receiving the correct dose. The current research at Swansea will concentrate on nanotechnology devices, which detect such biomarkers using samples of blood and saliva.
But, as the technology develops, it is hoped that such devices could be used inside the body, bringing us a step closer to the sci-fi vision of nanorobots - minute machines many times smaller than a naked eye can see - being inserted into the body to carry out operations.
"Women can now have HRT implants under their skin, the next stage is to make these smarter so their release isn't based on a slow transfusion but reacts to the levels of hormone in the body," Dr Conlan said.
It is thought that nanotechnology devices will start to become commonplace in healthcare in the next five years, but their success not only depends on the technology working, but society's ability to accept such futuristic devices.
It is with this in mind that much of the research into the technology has focused on fitting such devices into every life - for example a project in Texas is looking at integrating sensors into bathroom scales.
Billions of dollars worldwide are being invested in nanotechnology but the research could eventually lead to cheaper diagnostic tools and, eventually, treatments for healthcare systems across the globe.
Nanotechnology and the Centre for NanoHealth is also poised to boost Wales' economy
Dr Conlan added: "Nanotechnology is widely considered to be the next big thing - with markets associated with nanotechnologies projected to exceed $2.5trillion within 15 years.
"We are at the leading edge of research and development in this field.
"The Centre for NanoHealth will provide Swansea, Wales and the rest of the UK with the required infrastructure to facilitate a level of investment from the private sector to develop new technologies in the area of NanoHealth.
"This will ultimately return wider economic, health and environmental benefits to both the region and the wider economy."