Nanoparticles Used in Biotechnology

Carbon nanotube
Carbon nanotube. Getty Images/Science Photo Library - PASIEKA

Extensive libraries of nanoparticles, composed of an assortment of different sizes, shapes, and materials, and with various chemical and surface properties, have already been constructed. The field of nanotechnology is under constant and rapid growth and new additions continue to supplement these libraries. The classes of nanoparticles listed below are all very general and multi-functional, however, some of their basic properties and current known uses in biotechnology, and particularly nanomedicine, are described here.

Classes of Nanoparticles

  • Fullerenes: Buckyballs and Carbon tubes
    Both members of the fullerene structural class, buckyballs and carbon tubes are carbon based, lattice-like, potentially porous molecules.
  • Liquid Crystals
    Liquid crystal pharmaceuticals are composed of organic liquid crystal materials that mimic naturally-occurring biomolecules like proteins or lipids. They are considered a very safe method for drug delivery and can target specific areas of the body where tissues are inflamed, or where tumors are found.
  • Liposomes
    Liposomes are lipid-based liquid crystals, used extensively in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries because of their capacity for breaking down inside cells once their delivery function has been met. Liposomes were the first engineered nanoparticles used for drug delivery but problems such as their propensity to fuse together in aqueous environments and release their payload, have lead to replacement, or stabilization using newer alternative nanoparticles.
  • Nanoshells
    Also referred to as core-shells, nanoshells are spherical cores of a particular compound surrounded by a shell or outer coating of another, which is a few nanometers thick.
  • Quantum dots
    Also known as nanocrystals, quantum dots are nanosized semiconductors that, depending on their size, can emit light in all colors of the rainbow. These nanostructures confine conduction band electrons, valence band holes, or excitons in all three spatial directions. Examples of quantum dots are semiconductor nanocrystals and core-shell nanocrystals, where there is an interface between different semiconductor materials. They have been applied in biotechnology for cell labeling and imaging, particularly in cancer imaging studies.
  • Superparamagnetic nanoparticles
    Superparamagnetic molecules are those that are attracted to a magnetic field but do not retain residual magnetism after the field is removed. Nanoparticles of iron oxide with diameters in the 5-100 nm range have been used for selective magnetic bioseparations. Typical techniques involve coating the particles with antibodies to cell-specific antigens, for separation from the surrounding matrix.

Used in membrane transport studies, superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (SPION) are applied for drug delivery and gene transfection. Targeted delivery of drugs, bioactive molecules or DNA vectors is dependent on the application of an external magnetic force that accelerates and directs their progress towards the target tissue. They are also useful as MRI contrast agents.

  • Dendrimers
    Dendrimers are highly branched structures gaining wide use in nanomedicine because of the multiple molecular "hooks" on their surfaces that can be used to attach cell-identification tags, fluorescent dyes, enzymes, and other molecules. The first dendritic molecules were produced around 1980, but interest in them has blossomed more recently as biotechnological uses are discovered.
    • Nanorods
      Typically 1-100 nm in length, nanorods are most often made from semiconducting materials and used in nanomedicine as imaging and contrast agents. Nanorods can be made by generating small cylinders of silicon, gold or inorganic phosphate, among other materials.

    Current concerns over the safety of nanoparticles have lead to the development of many new facets of research. As a result, our collection of knowledge about nanoparticle interactions within cells is still rapidly growing. As research progresses in this exciting new area of biotechnology, new nanoparticles are continuously being discovered and new applications to nanomedicine will be found.