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The Cancer-Killing Nanorobots are Coming

Posted on April 26th, 2019 by in Pharma R&D

The Cancer-Killing Nanorobots are Coming

Scientists have shown –and continue to show – endless ingenuity as they develop drugs and therapies that can help the body fight cancer. But sometimes, in order to be fully effective, medicines need a little ‘helping hand’ as they do their work inside a patient. Nanorobots are a developing technology that have the potential to provide that assistance.

Targeting Tumors

One of the most exciting breakthroughs in nanomedicine came just last year when scientists at Arizona State University, working in conjunction with National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST) researchers, announced that they had used nanorobots to shrink tumors. Their study involved deploying nanorobots, programmed to cut off the bloody supply of tumors, into mice through intravenous injection.

“The molecular chemists have built a folding, origami-inspired, DNA-based system that carries blood-clot causing enzymes on the inside, shielded outside by tumor-hunting pieces of DNA,” writes Hilary Brueck in Business Insider. “When the cancer-sniffing, cylindrical robot floats its way to the site of a tumor, the otherwise harmless machine immediately attacks, unfurling its cancer-finding shell and dumping out a potent enzyme called thrombin. Then the thrombin gets to work, making a blood clot, and suffocating the tumor.”

As if this science fiction-come-to-life process wasn’t fascinating enough, Brueck notes that it all takes place at a scale smaller than 1/1,000th of a human hair.

This fully autonomous system for targeted cancer therapy has proved to be safe and didn’t affect healthy tissue. And Hao Yan, director of the ASU Biodesign Institute’s Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, told Science Daily that this technology can be used for many different kinds of cancer “since all solid tumor-feeding blood vessels are essentially the same.”

Many Nano Approaches in the Works

Researchers are building nanorobots that do everything from identifying cancer growths (see this paper published in Procedia Computer Science) to delivering treatments. Ed Gent of NBC News highlights robots “built from elastic polymers filled with magnetic particles that can be dragged through fluids and triggered to grasp objects,” which University of Toronto professor Eric Diller says could be used to collect tissue biopsies or carry drug capsules.

For example, there has been exploration as to how they can improve medicine by including the potential correction of genetic defects or by transversing capillaries to reach cancer cells. 

Gent also notes a recent German study in which sperm cells were loaded with anti-cancer drugs and fitted with magnetic harnesses. “The sperm tails provided propulsion but the harnesses let the researchers guide them using a magnetic field toward mini cervical cancer tumors that had been grown in a petri dish. They killed 87 percent of the tumors’ cells within three days.”

These technologies are in various stages of development and most not yet ready for humans. But as advances in nanomedicine move forward rapidly, it likely won’t be long until intelligent, mighty little bots are battling cancer within our bodies – and hopefully winning the fight.

Elia Lima-Walton

Elia Suzette Lima-Walton, MD is part of the Elsevier Content Transformation & Health Analytics team in her role as a Clinical Knowledge Representation Specialist. She applies her clinical knowledge and analytics experience to support clinical ontologies, Smart Content applications, precision medicine, clinical decision support and inference products.

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