A molecule of DNA, holding its blueprint for life, is about 2.5 billionths of a meter in diameter. Scientists now have the ability to push and pull and build molecules of that size, as well as to create devices that sense them with unprecedented precision. These skills, gained through painstaking work during the past decade, are leading to new medicines and ways of diagnosing disease. In this special report, Scientific American examines what nanomedicine is bringing us now, what is coming soon and what the future will likely hold.

Right now chemotherapy is a major focus, and drugs that can slip into tumors because of their fine-grained construction are showing success where other medications fail patients [see “Cancer Drugs Hit Their Mark,]. Diagnostic tests are also taking advantage of the small sizes, using probes of unusually shaped DNA that can detect cancer with remarkable accuracy. Next, in the near future, patients should be able to use smart bandages made with nano-sized molecules that enhance the healing of severe wounds—or that signal doctors when healing is not happening [see “A Smarter Bandage”]. Further out in time, researchers hope to attach tiny molecular motors to drugs, driving them through the bloodstream to their targets [see “Launch the Nanobots!”]. These are feats of nanoengineering, invisible to the eye, yet they could have an outsize effect on health.