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Nanotechnology is the molecular manufacture of very small materials, devices, and systems through the manipulation of matter. Derived from the Greek word "nano," meaning dwarf, nanotechnology involves components that range from approximately 1 to 100 nanometers in diameter (one nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter).

Nanoscale devices are somewhere from 100 to 10,000 times smaller than human cells. They are similar in size to large biological molecules, or biomolecules, such as enzymes and receptors. For example, hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in red blood cells, is approximately 5 nanometers in diameter.

Nanoscale devices smaller than 50 nanometers can easily enter most cells, while those smaller than 20 nanometers can move out of blood vessels as they circulate through the body.

Image courtesy of the National Cancer Institute

One area of nanotechnology application that promises to provide great benefits for society is in the world of medicine. Nanotechnology is already being used as the basis for new, more effective drug delivery systems.

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The emerging field of nanotechnology involves scientists from many different disciplines, including physicists, chemists, engineers, and biologists. There are many interesting nanodevices being developed that have the potential to improve cancer detection, diagnosis, and treatment.

The National Cancer Institute has created the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer in the hope that investments in this branch of nanomedicine could lead to breakthroughs in those areas.

Approaches to the creation of nanotechnology devices

There are three basic approaches for creating nanoscale devices. Scientists refer to these methods as the top-down, the bottom-up and the functional approach.

The top-down approach

This approach seeks to create smaller devices by using larger ones to direct their assembly. This involves molding or etching materials into smaller components and has traditionally been used in making parts for computers and electronics.

The bottom-up approach

This approach attempts to arrange smaller components into more complex assemblies such as assembling structures atom-by-atom or molecule-by-molecule, and is used in medicine.

Functional approaches

Developing components of a desired functionality without regard as to how they might be assembled uses a functional approach.





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