Digital health philosopher John Nosta discusses the exciting promise of nanotechnology in the context of our human capacity to embrace change.

One of the driving forces in digital health is the simple idea of miniaturization. Everything is getting smaller—from ultrasound machines to entire clinical laboratories. Small is the magic word that brings technology down to a perspective that creates new realities that conger the classic film Fantastic Voyage where scientists were miniaturized and injected into a full size human to repair a defect. The journey was, as they say, fantastic and the application to real life seemed just as fantastic. Until now…


The growth of the nanotechnology movement is significant and may represent one of the most important areas in digital health. The role of circulation nanoparticles is being explored in a variety of clinical settings. One interesting approach that is being studied by Eric Topol, MD is for these particles to continuously circulate in the body to detect the presence of chemicals that can be markers for the initial sequence of events that result in a heart attack. In this instance, as the endothelium sloughs off cells, the nanoparticles can sense them and send a signal to our smart phones and provide time to preempt the actual coronary occlusion and myocardial damage. It’s a profound change from the urgency of a heart attack to the early warning sign that can be managed with less urgency and costs.

Another name in the nanotechnology news is Google. They have recently announced their attempts to use magnetic nanoparticles to search for cancer and other diseases. It’s just another step in Google’s growth into health, wellness and longevity. Similar to the idea for heart attacks, the Google particles would be “sticky” and become attached to markers for diseased cells. An external sensor would then count the nanoclusters and report the information to a device like a smart phone. 

The Magic of Stage Zero Disease

The interesting aspect of nanodetection of injury or disease is the time frame. This technology allows us to detect abnormalities at very, very early stages. For example (and this is a bit of an exaggeration), imagine the detection of cancer when just a few cells are actually present. What emerges is detection of disease that makes palpating a lump in a breast as a detection method seem rather antiquated. Daniel Kraft, MD and I have often discussed this idea as Stage Zero Disease.  It’s a very interesting way of talking about early detection—and here’s the twist. Stage zero disease shares a border with the idea of prevention—and the role of nanotechnology very well may be our best path to achieve this “holy grail” of medicine.

The Fear of Aliens

Yes, aliens. Nanoparticles are aliens that will inhabit our bodies and, simply put, are a little freaky. And the huge potential of this technology may be the first huge barrier that consumers will face as our bodies become less a vehicle for an external device and more a physiological host for technology. This certainly takes us away from the simple smart watch and dermal patch and invades our bodies in a mysterious and invisible way.  Administered as a pill or injection, nanospheres offer a major step forward in innovation and take us on the first step in what may truly be called a fantastic voyage. 

My concern and question is whether, in this instance, technology may be outpacing our human capacity to embrace this change. It’s a concern that isn’t going away. In fact, it’s something that will be a recurrent issue, as innovations from neural implants to life extension move from the pages of science fiction to science fact. It’s going to be an interesting journey and I’m looking forward to living the dream!

John Nosta is a digital health philosopher, nuviun strategic advisor, and lead thinker at NostaLab. He has a resonant voice from Forbes to TED, and is a member of the Google Health Advisory Board. You can follow him on Twitter: @johnnosta.

The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.