The “Internet of Things” is already here. Home heating systems and car systems are examples of systems that connect to the internet and can be controlled remotely to make our lives easier. In the future, many of our everyday devices will become smaller and smaller. Eventually, the smartphone could even become an implant in the body.
Nanotechnology could allow us to scale devices down even further. These devices could become as small as the size of a cell and even be integrated into them. These nanodevices or nano cells would communicate with a computer connected to the internet. The computer would receive data from the nano cells and send it to servers to make sense of it and return a signal with further action. The computer would then forward these instructions to the nano cells. This process is referred to as the Internet of Bio-Nano Things.
How would it work?
The nano cell would have three major components, a bio-nano sensor, a sensor-interface chip and an antenna. The sensor would be programmable to perform different tasks and sense for a particular stimulus or signal. Much like a file converter, the sensor-interface chip would digitalize sensor data and convert the sensor’s chemical information into a digital number. Once this number crosses a threshold, the sensor-interface chip would send out an alert.
That task would be performed by a nano-sized antenna that can communicate over short distances using TeraHertz frequencies, also known as T-waves. Cell phones used in everyday life use the MegaHertz (MHz) frequency for communication. T-waves transmit one million times more waves per second. T-waves can penetrate tissue without damaging it. T-waves sent from the antenna would be received by a communication hub that is always closely located to a person. This hub could be the size of a wearable watch and communicate with thousands of nanocells simultaneously.
Are we sure this could work?
Graphene is the smallest, easiest way to send out T-Waves. Graphene is made up of carbon atoms, can conduct electricity, is bendable and over 300 times stronger than steel. It can act as a biosensor of any shape since it is just a single-atom-layer in thickness and easily moulded. It can be used to make batteries, memory chips, sensors, antennas, anything needed to make nano cells. The good news is that graphene is not the only material that can do all this. Molybdenum disulfide and boron nitride also work in the same fashion. They work well together with graphene too. A nanocell component could therefore be made of different materials that can communicate with each other and are compatible.
How would it help?
The IBNT could serve to monitor the health of individuals as well as the public at large.
Individuals who are at risk of developing an inherited condition could use nano cells to track their health. When symptoms begin to show at a cellular level, the system would trigger an alert. The individual could connect with a physician to begin treatment of symptoms. The cells could even be loaded with the treatment drug. Upon physician approval over the internet, the nano cells could begin drug administration at a very early stage in the disease.
At a public health level, the applications are huge. Take the seasonal flu for an example. We know that the flu peaks at a particular time of the year. With nano cells, we would not wait for people to fall sick. We would track the spread of infection in individuals. As the virus reproduces inside its host, the individual could continue to move freely. It is only when the number of infectious agents inside the host crosses a certain limit that an individual begins transmitting the disease. The IBNT system would alert the public health system when this happens. The public health system would analyse the alert and send instructions for the individual to isolate or begin treatment. The public health system would have real-time data on the spread of infection. It could isolate and treat the infected and prevent losses to social and economic systems. This would be taking ‘Big Data’ to a whole new level.
What are the risks?
Like any new technology, the IBNT has its risks. The hub is effectively a computing device and could be hacked into and thus cause the nano cells to malfunction. By meddling with nano cells, one could even fake the arrival of a disease. One could also delay the reporting of symptoms and access to available treatments. There are also privacy issues. Individuals might not prefer continuous health monitoring or having their personal data shared.
Researchers have identified these risks and are working on solutions to address them. The internet of bio-nano things (IBNT) would provide a new future where we can be proactive about our health. It would be a future where there are no long waiting times at medical centres. It would be a future where diseases do not surprise us. It would be a future where treatments are targeted and can be administered remotely. This future is not very far away.