Nanotechnology & Nutraceuticals
Scientifically speaking, the surface potential of this technology has barely been scratched.
At first blush, the concept of nanotechnology might seem like something straight out of a sci-fi novel – particles less than 100 nanometers in dimension, so incredibly small that they are said to be no longer governed by the typical Newtonian physics associated with larger particles that mandates the activity is equal to the sum of all parts. Rather, nanoparticles are governed by quantum physics whereby individual atoms exhibit more individuality and particles no longer behave as a sum of all the parts – yielding an end result that has different physical characteristics, but not different chemical characteristics.
Mind boggling physics lessons aside, nanotechnology holds many potential keys that both the medical and nutraceutical industries stand to benefit from. Although nanotechnology’s current use in the nutraceutical industry is primarily limited to delivery technology, visa vie improving nutrient suspensions in beverages and for enhanced dissolution in various delivery matrices, the supplement industry has barely scratched the surface of possibility as it pertains to this quickly evolving science, especially in terms of what is perceived to be nanotechnology’s greatest potential impact - an enhancement of the eventual effect, according to George Burdock, Ph.D., president of the Florida-based toxicology consulting firm, Burdock Group, and moderator of a panel set to discuss issues regarding nanotechnology regulation at The Food & Drug Law Institute’s 1st Annual Conference on Nanotechnology Law, Regulation and Policy on February 28-29 in Washington, DC.
“The most exciting aspects of nanotechnology are yet to come, and they are at least two-fold,” he said. “First, we know that the small size of the particles will allow easier absorption by the body as some particles can actually move between cells of the gastrointestinal tract and gain access to organs previously protected by natural barriers. “We also know that at the nano-level, the particles take on different characteristics,” he continued. “For example, experiments with metals have shown that copper can actually act as an insulator, that gold expresses a blue color rather than the traditional yellow and becomes chemically catalytic instead of inert. In this sense, it's like we've discovered an entirely new periodic table with a spectrum of element characteristics never seen before.By analogy, this could mean that the effects expressed by a particular chemical or extract could be totally different than that seen historically. It could be that an entirely new spectrum of activities for a particular chemical could be expressed. We may be on the edge of a quantum leap in scientific discovery.”
But Dr. Burdock warns that while some manufacturers may claim their product imparts the benefits of nanotechnology, it’s not always the case. The key to nanotechnology, he explained, is size. “Many products claim nanotechnology when, in fact, the particles are greater than 100 nanometers in their greatest dimension,” he said. “Any particle (or liposome) with any dimension greater than 100 nanometers, is not a nanoparticle, but something else, possibly a microparticle. Also, it is key to remember that not just a few of the particles must be less than 100 nanometers, but a majority of the particles must be less than 100 nanometers. For example, whenever something is ground down to the nano-level, or ‘built up’ from the molecular level to the nano-level, if there are no proper controls in place, there can be a wide range in particle size and many of the particles may be in the micro-size range. When only a small percentage of particles are in the nanoparticle range, it will not have the behavioral characteristics of nanoparticles.”
The aforementioned reasons also impose specific concerns that nutraceutical companies should be aware of, should they decide to explore what nanotechnology can do for their products. “For example, the small size of these particles allows them to gain easy access to the body and to organs within the body. In general, the slow absorption rate of a substance may be a critical key to its safety, and if the substance is absorbed all at once, as if it were an intravenous injection, it could have a toxic result,” explained Dr. Burdock. “Secondly, if the particles are so small they can gain access to previously protected organs, such as the placenta, brain, retina and thyroid, there could be a toxic effect within that organ. For example, streptomycin cannot gain access to the brain because of the so-called ‘blood-brain barrier,’ and if it does get into the brain, convulsions will result. The same is true for the placental barrier; it could be that a substance that could not pass through the placental barrier before may now gain access to the fetus as a nano-sized particle.”
Additionally, because substances may have different characteristics as nanoparticles, they may express toxic effects not seen before. “For example, it is believed that nano-sized carbon particles may be responsible for hitherto unexplained deaths because nano-sized carbon particles can short-circuit the delicate electrical grid of the heart,” commented Dr. Burdock. “Also, some particles are known to have a predilection for entering cellular mitochondria, the ‘powerhouses of the cell,’ and activating apoptotic pathways, triggering cellular self-destruct messages. Therefore, for any use of a substance, regardless of its previous history of safe use and regardless if it has already been approved for use by the FDA, its safety should be thoroughly reviewed and may require animal testing before use.”
The View Ahead
Once the intricacies of nanotechnology are fully explored, understood and regulated, the drug, food and nutraceuticals sectors all have the potential to benefit from this incredible science. Dr. Burdock predicted its impact will no doubt improve delivery technology and increase the potency of substances; support greater stability and keep products free of spoilage from bacteria, sunlight and temperature extremes.
“New activities for substances will be found,” he added. “For example, right now only one of 10,000 candidate drugs makes it to market because of some safety or technical problem. Therefore, drug companies re-test these drugs employing nanotechnology and many may become marketable drugs, as nanotechnology may overcome technical problems or unmask new effects.”
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly behind efficacy, of course is the potential for cost savings. “Because of the small size, enhanced stability, enhanced absorption and new applications,” concluded Dr. Burdock, “the amount of a substance in the retail product may be decreased or, a new source for the same effect might be found that is cheaper than the original source.”