June 14, 2005
California Scientists Attempt Nanomachines Against Arterial Plaque

Some scientists at a few Calfornia research centers have received funding to develop nanotech therapies against atherosclerotic plaques in arteries. Note that this an announcement of the beginning of their research efforts. But the announcement is notable because these scientists are attempting to develop nanodevices to hook onto and modify arterial plaque.

The Burnham Institute has been selected as a "Program of Excellence in Nanotechnology" ("PEN") by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute ("NHLBI") of the National Institutes of Health ("NIH"). A partnership of 25 scientists from The Burnham Institute, University of California Santa Barbara, and The Scripps Research Institute will use the $13 million award to design nanotechnologies to detect, monitor, treat, and eliminate "vulnerable" plaque, the probable cause of death in sudden cardiac arrest.

Led by Jeffrey Smith, Ph.D., of the Burnham Institute and the principal investigator of the program, the scientific team is comprised of biochemists, vascular biologists, chemical engineers and physicists. "This is a novel approach to bring experts from all these fields together," said Dr. Smith. "And it's very exciting. These groups do not normally work together. But in this instance, I think it's going to produce some real scientific progress."

Recent studies have shown that plaque exists in two modes: non-vulnerable and vulnerable. Blood passing through an artery exerts a shearing force and can cause vulnerable plaque to rupture, which often leads to occlusion and myocardial infarction. This is a significant health issue: of the nearly one million people who die each year from cardiac disease, 60 percent perish without showing any symptoms. As many as 60 - 80 percent of sudden cardiac deaths can be attributed to the physical rupture of vulnerable plaque.

"We intend to exploit this new understanding of atherosclerotic plaque," said Dr. Smith. "By focusing on devising nano-devices, which can be described as machines at the molecular level, we will specifically target vulnerable plaque. That cannot be accomplished today. My colleagues and I hope that our work will lead to real diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for those suffering from this form of cardiac disease."

The project team will work on three innovative solutions to combat vulnerable plaque; 1) building delivery vehicles that can be used to transport drugs and nanodevices to sites of vulnerable plaque; 2) designing a series of self-assembling polymers that can be used as molecular nano-stents to physically stabilize vulnerable plaque, 3) creating nano-machines comprised of human proteins linked to synthetic nano-devices for the purpose of sensing and responding to vulnerable plaque.

I like the idea of "self-assembling polymers" for "molecular nano-stents" to stablize plaque. The idea is to anchor it down so it can't break free and cause a heart attack or stroke.

I feel so out of it since I didn't already know what "BioNEMS" means. They will develop bio-nanoelectromechanical systems (BioNEMS).

The multi-organizational team will build "delivery vehicles" that can be used to transport drugs, imaging agents and nano-devices directly to locations where there is vulnerable plaque; design molecular nano-stents to physically stabilize vulnerable plaque and replace its fibrous cap with an anti-adhesive, anti-inflammatory surface; devise molecular switches that can sense and respond to the pathophysiology of atheroma (fatty deposits on arterial walls); and develop bio-nanoelectromechanical systems (called BioNEMS) that can sense and respond to vulnerable plaque, ultimately providing diagnostic and therapeutic capability.

This is another example of development of a treatment that falls within the typology of 7 Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) to halting and rejuvenate bodies by the removal of accumulated extracellular junk. They are not saying they are attempting to remove the plaque. But once they can target nanomachines to hook on to plaque they might find it just as easy to break it down to remove it as to stabilize it.

Widespread acceptance of SENS for rejuvenation is not necessary for the development of many SENS treatments. My guess is that for at least the next decade most treatments which will accomplish objectives which support SENS will be justified under the old paradigm of development of treatments against specific diseases. Efforts such as this one develop tools that will be useful for rejuvenation. So we are making progress toward the goal of engineered negligible senescence or perpetual youth.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 June 14 03:30 PM  Nanotech for Biotech

Braddock said at June 15, 2005 5:00 AM:

There are no diagnostic or procedure codes recognized by government or private health insurance that covers rejuvenation therapies. Such therapy would either have to be out of pocket, like elective cosmetic surgery, or coded for a recognized disease or condition. I would not expect that to change soon. The health care industry is locked in a death grip with government funding agencies, government regulatory agencies, consumer groups, lobbying organizations, pharmaceutical and medical devices manufacturers, provider and worker unions, and malpractice/class action/personal injury attorneys. Go slow, go conservative, change as little as necessary. The cost of all that is growing exponentially.

epobirs said at June 15, 2005 5:20 AM:

Possibly the best thing that could happen to the pursuit of rejuvenation therapies is to keep completely apart from federal and insurance industry interference. Let those who are both elderly and wealthy, or just wealthy and intent on holding on their health foot the bills for the wilder and riskier experiments. What is the point of wealth if it cannot give you first dibs on this sort of thing. It is by and large the wealthy, on a global scale, that make practical the technologies that eventually become accessable to all in developed nations. Thus in less than a decade DVD players go from expensive new toy to ceral box prizes.

This line of research sounds much more practical than a lot of the blue skies nanobot dreams. Useful but obtainable goals are more likely to get my approval if I'm involved in funding decisions. At this point it would be an accomplishment to just have a nonoscale device that could demonstrably be placed in large numbers in a mammalian circulatory system, perform a meaningless but discernable task, and either be safely removed or remain for long periods without harm. Just getting good at having artifacts running around in our blood is a pretty big step.

Randall Parker said at June 15, 2005 7:44 AM:

Plastic surgery is a rapidly growing area of medical treatment that is mostly paid out-of-pocket. So one important area of medicine is much freer to innovate and to appeal to upscale clients with therapies that are driven totally by the market demand.

My guess is that plastic surgeons will be delivering rejuvenating stem cell therapies for skin, dermis, and hair follicles before stem cells are widely used for most other potential purposes. I'd be surprised if plastic surgeons aren't using stem cell therapies 10 years from now.

FG Powers said at June 15, 2005 7:46 AM:

The key to paying for this type of treatment is not medical insurance... it is life insurance.

How much more money could life insurance companies make, if they could leverage the life-extension properties of SENS and only really have to worry about accidental deaths causing payouts?

Colin said at June 15, 2005 8:53 AM:

This is going to kill people, right? In a very obvious way. When perfected it will have a statistical effect on longevity, but it's going to kill some otherwise healthy people right away. No organisation would dare do this on a human. People at very high risk will have surgery as now. I can see this as being very good for pets with rich owners.

Petronius said at June 15, 2005 8:58 AM:

Worrying about insurance coverage before the treatment is actually invented is putting the cart way before the horse. In the meantime, if it works it might be seen as preventative care, not rejunenation. Unless its fabulously expensive, this nano-roto-rooter might be far more cost efficient than waiting for the patient to need a bypass, which run nearly $100k US. Might health plans encourage you to take the treatment on you're 50th birthday, and reduce your chance of a coronary for the next 10 or 15 years?

Braddock said at June 15, 2005 9:50 AM:

No, concern about the source of payment for new therapies is quite natural in a semi-capitalist society. Prevention is not covered by most insurance payment methods. It is treated exactly like elective cosmetic surgery. Out of pocket. Screening for disease, on the other hand, is often compensated quite well. Mammograms and GEDs/colonoscopies for example. The whole model has to be changed. A lot of sociologists and medical ethicists think it would be a bad thing for humans to live longer. Such persons need to die off and soon.

Brenbart said at June 15, 2005 11:36 AM:

I suspect they are going with the anchoring approach because it the loose plaque floating around that causes heart attacks. i.e. when a large chunk breaks free.

I see a couple possible approaches...

One, (This is rather drastic) if they can get the nano-machines to hook on and dissasemble the plaque it runs the risk of de-stabilizing and causing the blockage to break up into large chunks. If they could get them to dissolve the plaque rather quickly they could do some sort of temporary bypass to a blood filtering machine. Of course, this isn't likely to be looked on favorably since it would require some sort of open heart surgery.

Two, rather than dissolving the plaque, design the nano-machines to not only stabilize it but bond with all of the exposed plaque in such a way that new plaque cannnot stick to it. This would thereby keep any new plaque from building up at that site.

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