To anyone familiar with the long, often fruitless search for cancer’s cure, or the unfulfilled promise of nanotechnology, this may seem far-fetched. But in recent years, scientists have learned more about how cancer works at the cellular level. They have also learned to build molecules that could detect and destroy cancer cells, making today’s painful and often-ineffective treatments a thing of the past.

Though the jump from lab to patient is long, scientists are confident that it can be made.

“Developing any drug or diagnostic is a long process, and that’s still going to be the case,” said Greg Downing, director of the Office of Technology and Industrial Relations at the National Cancer Institute. “But these technologies have the potential to overcome challenges we can’t overcome now.”

The technologies now being developed are not the complex miniature machines usually associated with nanotechnology, but particles a few nanometers wide.

Don’t start smoking just yet, though.