Nanotechnology, the science of the really small, is already applied in hundreds of consumer products to enhance colour and durability of paints or make socks less smelly, but it's real promise may lie in medicine.

Scientists can use nanoparticles created in a laboratory that are tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a strand of hair to deliver drugs deep into the body, penetrating membranes in ways no pill has been able to do.

A nanoparticle can be attached to antibodies or chemicals that recognize tumour cells and can target and kill cancer cells but spare surrounding tissue.

Jie Chen, a nanotechnology engineer at the University of Alberta, is using nanotechnology to develop new cancer treatments that could one day replace radiation and chemotherapy. He is doing experiments with injected nanoparticles that contain a bamboo compound that is sensitive to ultrasound.

"So when the ultrasound is used and treated or targeted towards these compounds, then you will activate and generate something which can destroy the cancer, so it's much safer compared to the conventional radiation."

Dr. Nils Petersen, director general of the National Institute for Nanotechnology in Edmonton, said nanotech promises better, faster and cheaper ways of diagnosing and treating disease, developing drugs — even regrowing teeth.

"It is going to be pervasive, and it's going to be something that will influence and transform what we're doing over the next several decades," Petersen said.

Safety concerns raised

The potential is exciting, agreed Herman Stamm of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, but there are also questions about the safety.

"It has been shown in animal experiments for example that very small particles can overcome the intestinal barrier and can go into the bloodstream and can go into the organs," Stamm said.

The worry is over nanoparticles that are smaller than 100 nanometres in size and that don't break down, said Dutch food researcher Frans Kampers of the biotechnology centre for food and health innovation at the Wageningen Research Centre.

"These particles can stay in your body — can get to places in your body where you do not want them, maybe even get into the cells if they're small enough, maybe even get into the core, the nucleus of the cell and harm the DNA if you're not careful," Kampers said.

Health Canada said it's working with other countries to identify potential risks of nanotechnology, and it says new or tougher regulations may be needed to protect people.

The researchers in Edmonton are starting to organize a human trial of the ultrasound cancer treatment, saying they are eager to put nanotechnology to work in medicine.