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What is Nanobiomechanics?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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"Nanobiomechanics" is a relatively rarely-used word used to describe the mechanics of living cells in action. The "nano" prefix is somewhat of a buzzword, because the relevant length scales of living cells are measured in micrometers, not nanometers, although some of the relevant forces occur on the nanometer scale. Because cells are the building blocks of all living things, understanding their nanobiomechanics is helpful to predicting and analyzing their macro-scale properties.

One researcher in nanobiomechanics, Subra Suresh, a materials scientist at MIT, is a pioneer of applying nanoscale measurement to living cells. In one experiment, he measured the difference in physical properties between healthy red blood cells and red blood cells infected with malaria parasites. Using tiny sensors that can measure forces as small as a piconewton (one trillionth of a newton), Suresh determined that red blood cells infected with malaria were 10 times more rigid than healthy red blood cells, three to four times stiffer than previously estimated. The nanobiomechanics of these cells are important because rigid cells can clog capillaries, causing cerebral hemorrhaging.

Researchers hope that nanobiomechanics will help us learn more about certain diseases and produce novel treatments or cures for them. Malaria is one target, others are muscular dystrophy, cardiovascular disease, cancer of the liver and pancreas, and sickle-cell anemia. In each of these diseases, individual cells display changes in physical properties that can theoretically be measured to understand the malady more effectively.

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Nanobiomechanics may also play a role in the design of new nanoscale materials or devices meant to be implanted into the human body, such as pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, or more futuristic implants such as hippocampal replacements. Current human implants are usually not structured at the nano-scale, as our knowledge of advantageous patterns at this scale is limited due to insufficient investigation. In the long run, researchers hope that nanobiomechanics might be used to create implants that meld so well with the human body that the chance of rejection is near-zero, and the implants are as efficient and natural as organs themselves.

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