Documenting the Coming Singularity

Monday, March 26, 2007

Making a Better Fit through Nanotech

Imagine that you are a great artist, world-renowned and highly skilled with the brush. Now imagine that you are commissioned to create a life-like portrait of a wealthy patron. He has only two requirements: You must use only a large commercial paint-sprayer, and the portrait must be 6-inches tall by 4-inches wide. Would you accept the job?

Compared to nano-scale construction, our modern manufacturing techniques are analogous to using a paint-sprayer to create a detailed painting on that tiny canvas. Even photolithography (which uses light to transfer a geometric pattern from a photomask to a light-sensitive chemical) is ham-handed by comparison. Construction on the nano scale (on the order of billionths of a meter, or less than 1 micrometer) allows the building of structures molecule by molecule, or even atom by atom. The incredibly fine detail made possible by nanotech opens the door to fantastic improvements in the effectiveness of implant devices.

Some statistics: Almost 500,000 patients receive hip implants every year worldwide. Approximately the same number need bone reconstruction due to injury or congenital defects. About 16 million Americans annually may require dental implants. Getting bone to bond with implant devices is a major problem in these cases. However, "There seems to be growing consensus among scientists that nanostructured implant materials may have many potential advantages over existing, conventional ones" (Link). Further:
Webster (an associate professor for the Division of Engineering and Orthopaedics at Brown University) outlines the requirements for successful bone implants: They should not only temporarily replace missing bone but provide a framework into which the host bone and vascular network can regenerate and heal; they should act as a scaffold to support new bone formation, blood vessels and soft tissue as they grow to connect fractured bone segments; and, ideally, the implant should also interact with the host tissue, recruiting and even promoting differentiation of osteogenic cells, rather than acting as a passive stage for the performance of any itinerant cells.

Three factors have become key areas in the development of improved orthopedic devices: topography, where nanoscale surface structuring would optimize cell colonization; surface chemistry, where scientists attempt to control and optimize the chemical surface properties of an implant material; and wettability, due to the observation that cell adhesion and subsequent activity are generally better on hydrophilic surfaces

This is only one of countless applications of nanotech that hold out the promise of radical extension of human life and productivity. Let's keep up, folks!