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By: Bethany Chen

Despite being less than 100 nm in diameter, nanoparticles have revolutionized the engineering industry and modern science. Nanoparticles have only been actively studied in the past few decades, even though they date back as far as the 4th century as seen in the Lycurgus cup. These submicroscopic particles can be found in everyday products like sunscreen or pesticides, though they have caused controversy in their effects to the environment. A study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has even developed a conductive pen ink with the help of nanoparticles, allowing electronics to be made on more uneven surfaces and to have less design restraints. Nanoparticles have especially opened new ventures in medicine and biology, offering novel and exciting methods for drug delivery and cancer treatment. For example, nanoparticles were evaluated in drug delivery to tumor tissues as well as transfer of genes into cells.

Nanoparticles have shown great potential in aiding drug delivery. It is crucial to deliver the right amount of medicine to the right location in our bodies for disease treatment. The use of nanoparticles has revealed better delivery efficiency to the targeted site, which can reduce drug dosages, further decreasing the overall cost and unwanted side effects. The variability of nanoparticles allows them to encapsulate a large scale of drugs. The size, shape, material, and surfaces of nanoparticles can be easily manipulated to adjust to the drug or the targeted location in the body.

The chemical makeup of the nanoparticle greatly affects their biodegradability and functionality. A variety of materials can be used, such as gold, poly lactic-co-glycolic acid (PLGA), or chitosan, each having different optimal properties for different types of cells. In addition to the makeup, adding ligands to target receptors on cells helps improve specificity, and therefore the drug would be delivered specifically to a certain cell population. Challenges like physiological barriers or defenses from the immune system arise, blocking the majority of particles from the targeted site. Currently, identifying new combinations of the structure and makeup of the particle has become a critical part to significantly improving the efficiency of nanoparticles.

In this time and age, there have been countless new discoveries in medicine and biology. I, for one, have only experienced a nanoparticle-sized portion of this history. While still in my high school years, I’m learning about new materials in all fields of science, but I also got the opportunity to experience what I had just learned first-hand in laboratories. Being able to connect knowledge with real research experience helped me imagine the endless frontiers the next generation can conquer. With a long future ahead of me, I hope I can gain more experience and drive new innovations.

Bethany Chen is a junior at Winston Churchill High School in Maryland. She conducted her research over the summer at the University of Iowa through the Secondary Student Training Program.