Unsustainable growth of healthcare costs is one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity. Health spending is rising faster than economic growth in all OECD countries. In 2016-17, Australia spent nearly $181 billion on health — this is more than $7,400 per person. Adjusted for inflation, this is growing by over $8 billion (4.7%) per year (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).
To address this requires a paradigm shift away from the ‘break-fix’ model of healthcare to a focus on prevention and early intervention. Nanotechnology is one of the key exponential technologies with potential to dramatically disrupt healthcare over the next decade, through the development of nanoscale devices that can enter the body for non-invasive early diagnosis.
Heart disease is an area with an urgent clinical need for new early diagnosis methods. It is the biggest killer of Australians (30%). It is also the most expensive, and growing, with annual costs projected to nearly double between 2012 and 2032, to $22 billion. Current diagnostic methods are expensive and invasive, and only detect advanced disease. For example, catheter angiography only detects arteries when they are almost completely blocked (50-75% occlusion). Currently, no early detection methods exist.
The molecular-level changes in early heart disease occur on the nanoscale. To detect these changes, we are building nanoscale robots, smaller than cells, that will navigate the body. This will enable us to see inside even the narrowest blood vessels, to detect the fatty deposits (atherosclerotic plaque) that signal the start of arterial blockage and allow treatment before the disease progresses.
If I could miniaturise myself inside the body... I could detect early, treatable damage in your coronary arteries when you are 25 years old and thus avoid your premature death.
Led by Dr Shelley Wickham (bio-nanotechnology and molecular robotics) and Dr Anna Waterhouse (bioengineering and cardiovascular medical devices), a multidisciplinary team including heart surgeons, physicists, chemists, engineers and medical researchers are working together to achieve this goal. The bio-nanotechnology expertise of Sydney Nano is perfectly positioned to lead innovation in this key area, with support of the complementary world-leading cardiovascular expertise of the Charles Perkin Centre and Heart Research Institute. It is also supported by state-of-the-art facilities in nanofabrication and robotic surgery at the University of Sydney.
The impact of this project will be extensive. It will improve health outcomes for all Australians with heart disease and reduce healthcare costs. It has potential to benefit other health challenges, including cancer, dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. It will provide a world-class collaborative environment to train the next generation of Australian researchers, driving innovation and development of new industries and jobs in Australia.
We will build on cutting-edge breakthroughs in complexity in the fields of DNA, protein and polymer self-assembly to develop essential nanorobot functions. A Core - for scaffolding and integration of components, Moving - active transport around the body, Sensing - to selectively bind targets or identify regions, Reacting - a change state in response to binding target, and Interacting - for external control and readout.
Our approach is to build integrated systems from nano to microscale. To achieve this we are bridging the gap between top-down nanotechnologies, such as e-beam and UV lithography, and bottom-up self-assembly of nanoscale components. Our multidisciplinary team includes world leaders in applied plasma physics and surface engineering, who are developing new surface immobilisation methods for biomolecules. We are also using complex systems expertise to drive complexity development.
There is no ‘one size fits all approach’ to biocompatibility. Compatibility is a systems property, and is only meaningful in reference to specific scale, function, material and location in the body. It is essential that our nanorobots are intrinsically compatible with blood, vasculature and the immune system. This work will build on the extensive cardiovascular experience of our team to design hemo and immune compatible biomolecular devices.
Our team is truly interdisciplinary, with 22 members across the faculties of Science, Medicine, and Engineering. This includes the departments of Chemistry, Physics, Central Clinical School, Medical Sciences, Pharmacology, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering. The team encompasses researchers at all levels, from early career to senior, and is balanced in gender.
Our team has links to the Heart Research Institute, Australian Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis, Drug Discovery Initiative, Research Prototype Foundry, and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. We are host to the University of Sydney undergraduate BIOMOD team.