Rohan Shirwaiker, Ph.D.
Solar panels and hospital bed rails may have laid the foundation for future orthopaedic implants. One idea evolved from the study of surface technology, the other from a search for materials to inhibit microorganisms. Both use nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is an industry buzzword, like additive manufacturing or robotics. Multidisciplinary technologies that experience success tend to build an urge within new surrounding industries to latch on to future possibilities and opportunities while the knowledge gap shrinks. That has created the buzz around nanotechnology in orthopaedics. “Nano” is allegedly being assigned to orthopaedic products without real use of the technology, an issue that could produce misunderstandings and hinder wide adoption in orthopaedics, according to some in the industry. Others believe that all conversation is good conversation.
And more than conversation is taking place. Major research is underway at the university and device company level, and new devices are expected to reach the market in the next five years.
Can nanotechnology move from buzzword to industry-shaping technology? Some think so.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) defines nanotechnology as the understanding of control of matter at dimensions between 1 and 100 nanometers. To put size into perspective, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick and one inch contains about 25.4 million nanometers.
Nanotechnology has evolved from the engineering of individual particles to the development of whole systems—think millions of nanotubes to create an implant surface. With that shift comes the need for a greater understanding by industry and the general public of its capabilities, benefits and risks, says Gregory Nichols, Program Manager of the Nanotechnology Studies Program at ORAU, a 115-member university consortium. Nichols founded the program in an effort to map the nanotechnology landscape and educate on its advantages and implications. Since founding the program in February 2015, he’s identified 1,200 different entities, e.g., universities and companies, using and making nanomaterials in the U.S. Healthcare, including medical devices, is a primary focus of his.
The size and growth rate of the nanotechnology industry is disputed, with reports claiming revenue ranging from $300 billion to $3 trillion. NNI, a U.S. government-founded program, has a budget of $1.5 billion for 2015.
There is government and private money to be had for nanotechnology development. With that comes greater interest in research, development and commercialization, and most likely greater regulatory scrutiny.
Using nanoparticles of natural materials found in the body to impact tissue growth is the first best step to understanding nanotechnology in orthopaedics, because it removes a device and possible material toxicity from the equation, Nichols says. (Think hyaluronic acid.)
“The most important thing to keep in mind about nanotechnology is that it’s an interdisciplinary field,” Nichols says. “It’s important to bring different people into the research environment. It’s important for engineers to talk to public health people, industrial hygienists and business people to understand the challenges and barriers to market entry, early on in the development of products. That will be an important aspect of nanotechnology, moving forward. It is not an engineer in isolation coming up with a great idea. There are big issues that need to be tackled early.”