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Is nanomedicine the next big thing? A growing number of top drug companies seem to think so. Reuters Health reports that the ability to encapsulate potent drugs in tiny particles measuring billionths of a meter in diameter is opening up new options for super-accurate drug delivery, increasing precision hits at the site of disease with, hopefully, fewer side effects.

Three deals struck this year by privately held Bind Therapeutics, together worth nearly $1 billion if experiments are successful, highlight a new interest in using such tiny carriers to deliver drug payloads to specific locations in the body. U.S.-based Bind is one of several biotechnology firms that are luring large pharmaceutical makers with a range of smart drug nanotechnologies, notably against cancer.

And nanomedicine is also being put to work in diagnosis, with tiny particles used to improve imaging in scanners, as well as rapidly detecting some serious infections. In the future, researchers hope to combine both treatment and diagnostics in a new approach dubbed “theranostics” that would allow doctors to monitor patients via their medicines.

After much hype but limited clinical success, scientists in the nanotechnology field finally see a turning point. “We have been hearing about the promise of nanomedicine for a long time, but it is now really starting to move,” said Dan Peer, who runs a nanomedicine laboratory at Tel Aviv University. “There is a new level of confidence in this approach among the big pharmaceutical companies … We will see more and more products in clinical testing over the next few years and I think that is very exciting.”

Nanoparticles made of polymers, gold and even graphene – a newly-discovered form of carbon – are now in various stages of development. In cancer alone, 117 drugs are being assessed using nanoparticle formulations, though most have yet to be tried on patients, according to Thomson Reuters Pharma data.Other potential applications include treatments for inflammatory disorders, heart and brain diseases, and pain.

Companies are increasingly focused on better drug targeting to increase efficacy and lessen the collateral damage caused by medicinal “carpet bombing” – a particular problem in cancer, where toxic compounds are needed to kill tumors. The work on drug-carrying nanoparticles parallels advances in using so-called “armed antibodies” to deliver drugs direct to cancer cells – an approach championed by Roche. The Swiss group won U.S. approval in February for Kadcyla, its first such antibody-drug conjugate, which treats breast cancer with fewer side effects like hair loss. “All these developments have prompted companies to look at new avenues because the older ways of using drugs haven’t worked so well,” said Robert Langer, a pioneer of nanomedicine who runs the world’s largest biomedical engineering laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.