Better By Design

Scientists have created tiny robots that could cure cancer

Polytechnique Montréal

Most cancer treatments come with serious side effects. They indiscriminately target healthy cells and cancerous ones alike, often taking a toll on a patient’s body.

For years, scientists have wondered whether it might be possible to go after only a body’s cancer-infected cells. This week, Canadian researchers announced a major breakthrough that one day may allow them to do just that, using “nanorobots” to travel down the bloodstream and administer drugs to only a tumor’s cancerous cells.

Scientists have long promised a new era of medicine in which tiny robots are called upon to perform delicate surgeries, diagnose disease or deliver drugs in precision-targeted doses. The dawn of that era hasn’t yet arrived, as working within the vast infrastructure of the human body, it turns out, is pretty complicated.

Nanobots are not exactly robots in the mechanical sense. Instead, they are tiny molecules that can automate tasks like drug delivery. Researchers from McGill University, Université de Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal used bacteria to deliver drugs to tumors in mice. First, the bacteria, outfitted with a drug-carrying vessel, are steered by a computer-controlled magnetic field to the location of the tumor. Then, once inside the tumor, the bacteria are self-directed, navigating to the most cancerous areas by detecting areas with depleted levels of oxygen. Their research was published Monday in the journal of Nature Nanotechnology.

These researchers are not the first to use nanorobots in an attempt to treat cancer. Scientists from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University began human trials using another type of drug-delivering nanobots to treat cancer earlier this year.

But the new study offers a promising breakthrough that could help turn cancer-curing nanobots from a sci-fi fantasy into a reality. The McGill researchers demonstrated how bacteria in particular can be harnessed for their natural propelling motion, using the combination of an electro magnetic field and oxygen-detecting censors to steer through the body to deliver drugs to a precise location. Researchers also successfully targeted hypoxic regions of tumors, which are generally resistant to other approaches like chemotherapy.

There are still plenty of hurdles before tiny robots are swimming around in our bloodstream, curing us of disease. Nanoparticle drugs tend to have a hard time getting FDA approval. The first one was approved by the FDA in 1995, but since then, the agency has give only a few dozen the green light.

This new research still needs to stand the test of a human trial, but we are a lot more than a nanostep closer to tiny robots swimming around in our bloodstream.

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