Nanorobots may replace traditional chemotherapy soon. Scientists have designed microscopic “robots” that are capable of precisely targeting cancer cells. The treatment is believed to be superior to other therapies that use nanocarriers to deliver drugs to cancer cells because it is much more accurate and controlled.
Once injected into the bloodstream, the nanorobots travel to the cancerous tumor and embed themselves within it delivering cell-destroying agents to only the cancer cells. This precise application allows for the use of lower doses of medicine and ensures that the drug is delivered only to the cells that need to be destroyed.
According to Science News Journal, “These bacteria are full of drugs and take a direct path from the injection site to the part of the body that needs to be cured.”
Part of the problem with traditional chemotherapy is that patients often suffer many side effects such as hair loss and nausea because of the high toxicity of the chemicals used in the regimen. Using nanorobots to deliver chemicals only to the cancer-affected areas will reduce or even eliminate the harmful side effects often seen in cancer treatment.
Director of the Polytechnique Montréal Nanorobotics Laboratory, Professor Sylvain Martel, states, “Chemotherapy, which is so toxic for the entire human body, could make use of these natural nanorobots to move drugs directly to the targeted area, eliminating the harmful side effects while also boosting its therapeutic effectiveness.”
Martel refers to them as “natural nanorobots” because they are actually bacteria as opposed to mechanical robots.
Researchers on Martel’s team, as well as others at McGill University and Université de Montréal, developed the breakthrough cancer technology using a magnetic strain of bacteria called Magnetococcus marinus, or MC-1. The video below, posted by Polytechnique Montréal (PolyMTL) on its YouTube channel, shows a cluster of MC-1 travelling in a square path and another swarm building a pyramid with microscopic blocks. The video demonstrates that the bacteria can be intricately controlled on the subcellular level.
Although it appears that the bacteria are being pulled along with a magnet, PolyMTL explains that each bacterium is self-propelled by dual clusters of flagellum, and their movement and coordination is controlled via computer.
“The swarm of bacterias are controlled by a tridimensional custom-made computerized platform referred to as a magnetotaxis system, which consisted of three orthogonal pairs of electric coils.”
The nanorobots are completely autonomous from human interaction. Once inside the tumor, they are programmed to specifically detect and target hypoxic zones, which are oxygen-depleted cells that indicate cancerous growth. The bacteria then deliver the chemicals only to those areas.
PolyMTL reports, “A kind of compass [is] created by the synthesis of a chain of magnetic nanoparticles [that] allows them to move in the direction of a magnetic field, while a sensor measuring oxygen concentration enables them to reach and remain in the tumour’s [sic] active regions.”
According to the research published in Nature Nanotechnology, the nanorobots were administered to rats with colorectal tumors and successfully penetrated the cancerous growths to deliver the drugs. The article stated that over half of the bacteria made it to the hypoxic regions, which is a ratio far higher than the delivery percentages achieved by other nanocarriers.
Cancer-fighting nanorobots are only one application of this ground-breaking research. According to Professor Martel, nanotechnology of this sort can also be applied to aid in other types of drug therapies, as well as in medical diagnosis and imaging methods.
“This innovative use of nanotransporters will have an impact not only on creating more advanced engineering concepts and original intervention methods, but it also throws the door wide open to the synthesis of new vehicles for therapeutic, imaging and diagnostic agents.”
Although there was no mention of a timeline for implementation of the technology or its cost, it is important to keep in mind that it is still in the early developmental stages. The group only published its findings yesterday. While it is expected that biological nanorobots will be medically available for cancer treatment soon, Martel suggests that the bacteria will eventually be replaced by “artificial nanorobots” specifically designed to perform the same task.
[Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]