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"Nanomedicine will be able to combat incurable diseases"

Nanotechnology is close to application in human medicine. Experiments with disease models have shown promising results and the first clinical trials are ongoing. Doctors are hoping that nanomedicine will provide them with the means to better diagnose diseases such as cancer and adapt the treatment to the individual needs of patients. In order to speed up the development of nanomedical applications, the communication scientist Beat Löffler and the doctor Dr. Patrick Hunziker founded the European Foundation for Clinical Nanomedicine – CLINAM – around a year ago. The first “European Conference for Clinical Nanomedicine” is to be held soon in Basel. BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg has therefore discussed this promising area of application with the two CLINAM founders.

What is so special about nanomedicine?

CLINAM founder Beat Löffler M.A. is the managing director of CLINAM and in charge of the foundation’s management. (Photo: CLINAM)
Nanotechnology is a science that deals with the smallest things, including methods for small-scale imaging and manipulation as well as the construction of objects and new materials. Nanomedicine is hoping to use all these methods, materials and systems for the benefit of patients, i.e. implementing and applying nanotechnology in clinical medicine – for example, nanomaterials used as the carriers of drugs that have to be transported to particular locations in the body and released directly on the diseased cell. In addition, there are many diagnostic methods that will in future be able to rapidly and reliably provide information on a patient’s disease directly at his or her bedside.

Nanomedicine is a very wide and also new area that is based on the progress made in nanotechnology. Many people are convinced that nanomedicine will be the key technology of the 21st century. It will be possible to use nanomedicine to provide the answers to many questions, and not just for the treatment of a few diseases.
CLINAM founder Dr. Patrick Hunziker is the scientific director of the foundation and also coordinates own research programmes. (Photo: CLINAM)
Can you give me some examples of human application?

Sure, there are several trials that are currently testing nanomedical applications in cancer. Nanomedicine enables cancer to be treated more effectively than has previously been possible. It has already been shown in experiments that this therapy works and the first human trials are underway. The keyword is ‘targeting’. Rather than flooding patients with toxic drugs, we chose a very targeted approach. Drugs are brought to the site where they are really needed, thus ensuring that they have considerably fewer side effects. The targeted use of therapeutics is one of the most important applications of nanomedicine.

Where is the position of nanomedicine today?

Approximately ten years ago, the medical application of nanotechnology was still a kind of science fiction. However, over the last few years, huge progress has been made. Nowadays, nanotechnology works very well in in vitro and in vivo disease models. And as I just mentioned, the first clinical trials have just got underway, for example in cardiology and oncology or for the treatment of metabolic disorders such as diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. The therapeutic application of nanomedicine is only a few years away. Such drugs are not yet being marketed but, taking into account the fact that clinical trials are ongoing, it can be assumed that the drugs will soon be available in clinical applications. In addition, the development of in vitro diagnostics and molecular diagnostics methods has made huge progress.

An excellent example of practical nanomedical applications is what is known as bedside monitoring, a system for monitoring the body’s biochemical data. A few drops of blood are withdrawn from a patient and a reliable and rapid diagnosis can be made directly at the bedside. The treating doctor thus knows very quickly what the patient needs and can act immediately. This in turn reduces the time patients have to stay in hospital and leads to a huge benefit for the patients, not to mention the enormous cost reduction due to quicker and more precise diagnoses.

In addition, patients will in future be able to use certain methods at home. These will be similar to the glucose determination used by diabetics, which is already perfectly standard. The nanomedical application will however be broader and more efficient than current methods.

Is nanomedicine suitable for any disease? And also for all patients?

I would not quite say “all”, but I am sure that it will be possible to treat many serious and incurable diseases, including cancer, infections, inflammation, atherosclerosis and metabolic diseases. In addition, the new nano-based materials will improve medical implants and the patients will tolerate them a lot better. It is interesting to note that nanomedicine is very versatile. For example, it is possible to adapt nanocarriers for drugs to the requirements of individual patients. This is very important for people suffering from allergies where it will be possible to continue using effective drugs and only exchange the carrier materials. This helps to circumvent undesired side effects.
Animation of a nanocontainer used to transport drugs to the cells and release them at particular targets. (Figure: CLINAM)
Animation of a nanocontainer used to transport drugs to the cells and release them at particular targets. (Figure: CLINAM)

Will health insurance companies pay for nanomedical applications?

As is the case with any new therapy, proof has to be provided as to whether a particular technology works, whether it is associated with a limited number of side effects and whether it is cost efficient. If this is the case, then the insurance companies will pay for such treatment. And we are very confident that nanomedical applications will convince them.

What motivates your dedication to the European Foundation for Clinical Nanomedicine (CLINAM)?

We have been gaining insights into this technology since the late 1990s and have been more and more fascinated by what we have seen. Now, the time is ripe for clinical application. The technology has clear advantages and will become very important for all of us. That is why we wanted to set up the foundation and support in particular the clinical application of nanomedicine for patients. In addition, nanomedicine is a wide field of interdisciplinary cooperation. That is why we want to support and promote this interdisciplinary cooperation.

Why did you decide to set up the foundation?

A few years ago, the establishment of the Biovalley initiative showed that communication between different fields of science is not always easy, but is nevertheless necessary. If the parties involved can effectively communicate with each other, then ideas will lead to innovations. And we want to make sure that nanomedicine will not suffer because of ineffective communication. Nanomedicine is an interdisciplinary field of science and many different scientists have to work together. That is why it is important for us to find a common language in order to advance this innovative field of research rather than impeding it. We are hoping that Europe will be among the leaders in the clinical application of nanotechnology.

Who is behind CLINAM, and how is the foundation financed?

At the beginning, the two of us financed CLINAM with our own resources. Nowadays, the foundation is managed by a board consisting of doctors, scientists, bank representatives and lawyers who share our visions. It is our intention to promote medicine in a completely new field and we have also initiated talks with industry, which is very interested in such applications.

The foundation was set up about one year ago. What have you achieved so far?

In October 2006, we developed the concept for the foundation of CLINAM, and we set up the foundation in 2007. We have achieved quite a lot since then: We have established the “European Society for Nanomedicine” (ESNAM), which is the largest society of its kind in Europe. It already has 150 members of which the majority also works in clinics. We have initiated a conference programme that will be a huge motivating factor. The first European conference will be held in Basel in May and from then on, on an annual basis. This will bring together the top experts in the field of clinical nanomedicine. In addition, we have launched the “European Journal of Clinical Nanomedicine” and the first issue will appear in May on the occasion of the conference.

What are your plans for the future?

We have a huge vision. The major aim is of course for the foundation to grow. And then we hope to establish a big cooperative European research centre in Basel. But it will certainly take a few years before we will be able to turn this idea into reality.

When do you expect nanomedical applications to enter the clinic?

In the field of diagnostics, this will happen in a few years. And therapeutic application is not that far off either. Remember that clinical trials have been started. However, this will require the cooperation between clinics, research and industry, for example with regard to the production of therapeutics.

Does this mean that there are currently cooperations with pharmaceutical companies?

Yes, there are. For example, the European research programme involves the participation of industrial partners in nanotechnological projects. Industry is very sensitive to all developments and is very interested in being involved at an early stage in order not to be left behind. All big platforms are mainly managed by industry.

Why have doctors not been interested in nanotechnology a lot earlier?

The interest of doctors in nanotechnology has recently increased because the technology is close to clinical application. They need to tackle the subject now. While the European technology platforms link the goals of industry, academia and politics, clinically active doctors have a slightly different perspective and different priorities. That was another reason for setting up the foundation as it pursues a different approach and seeks to link clinical application with research. The two approaches must not be seen as being in competition with each other but as extras that are advantageous for either side.

What other groups, apart from doctors, are involved in nanomedicine?

The group of “clinical nanomedics” is very interdisciplinary, both in terms of professions and interests. Doctors, scientists, pharmacologists, engineers and technicians are working together. Previously, the field mainly consisted of pharmacologists and industry representatives. There were only a few doctors involved, because clinical application was still a long way off. This has changed. And at the conference in May, more than fifty per cent of the speakers will be doctors – and this is a true novelty.

But we do not want to have only doctors as members; our goal is to unite clinicians with scientists and build a bridge between the two disciplines.

Are there ethical concerns in the application of nanomedicine?

Sure, we have to deal with the question of whether nanomedicine is for the benefit of humans, or whether there are potential dangers. Doctors have a huge responsibility and that is why it is important to deal intensively with questions relating to toxicity. CLINAM has an ethics programme in which the opportunities and risks of nanomedicine are discussed. In addition, we regularly organise discussions with experts.

In addition, the social sciences are raising questions with regard to the development of society and human thinking. That is the case with any new technology. People have great expectations of such new technologies. Some of them are afraid and others believe that the new technologies will do more good than harm. And this is what we have to deal with.

What are your expectations of your first international conference?

This will be the first time that more than a hundred people working in clinical nanomedicine will come together. And it will be very exciting. We hope that we will be able to discuss many things, and that the participants will contribute to the discussions. That is why we have organised the conference in minute detail: every speaker has ten minutes to explain his or her core message. The rest of the time is reserved for questions and plenary discussions.

In Europe, and most likely also worldwide, this will be the first nanomedicine congress in which fifty per cent of the speakers are clinicians. There will also be many scientists, pharmacologists, industry representatives, tool manufacturers, material scientists and many others. The conference focuses on the question of the possibilities and discoveries in modern nanomedicine. What is clinically “state-of-the-art” and where the future will take us. In any case, we are expecting constructive discussions and the participation of many bright people.

The interview was conducted by Dr. Petra Neis-Beeckmann for BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH.

pbe - 26.03.08
© BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH

Further information:
Beat Löffler, MA
European Foundation for Clinical Nanomedicine CLINAM
Alemannengasse 12
CH-4016 Basel
Switzerland
Tel.: 0041/ 61-6959395
Fax: 0041/ 61-6959390
E-mail: loeffler@clinam.org

Nanomedicine

Nanomedicine is the application of nanotechnology in medicine. Nanotechnology is regarded as one of the most important technologies of the 21st century. It is an interdisciplinary field of science dealing with methods, materials and tools on the nanometre scale – this means in the range of one millionth millimetre, on the level of individual molecules. It is expected that the application of nanotechnology in medicine will lead to the more effective prevention, more rapid diagnoses and the more effective treatment of patients, with fewer unwanted side effects.

In addition, nanomedicine is more cost efficient than traditional methods due to shorter hospital stays, the possibility of self-management for patients and the use of minimal quantities of reagents and materials. In pilot studies, therapies involving drug targeting, medical nanomaterials, diagnostic imaging, regenerative medicine methods and implants made from biomaterials are already being tested.
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