‘Nanometer’ isn’t a word used often in common conversation, but it may soon become a common part of the healthcare lexicon. This is because nanotechnology, and perforce nanorobots, all work on this smallest of scales. A proper nanorobot might be 100 nanometers at the largest… or as small as a couple of atoms. And nanotechnology is allowing scientists and physicians to work together not just to deliver life-saving cancer treatments right to the source of the problem, and to carry out complex medical tasks easily and safely.\
For example, these fantastic miniature medical devices can flow through the bloodstream, safely removing build-ups and blockages which once might have required expensive surgery. Or they can flow through the body to repair small tissue damage. They can even deliver targeted drug and gene therapies, which is one of the most interesting and explored applications for medical nanorobots to date.
Safer, Faster, and More Effective Drug Delivery
Nanorobots can be designed to target cancerous tissue, which has been one of the key difficulties of most cancer treatments. Even when targeted, chemotherapy has dangerous toxicity levels to the whole body, and many traditionally-delivered cancer drugs can be immensely hard on the patient. Nanorobots can act like guided missiles, straight to cancer cells, delivering drugs there without hurting the healthy tissue around it.
Nanorobots have also been used to deliver targeted gene therapies. One of the key areas of study in the U.K. involves planting segments of helpful DNA around a synthetic core. Since most cells have many protections against allowing foreign DNA to enter, placing the DNA around this core confuses their defense mechanisms, so they take in the DNA strands which begin correcting the genetic issues.
This allows scientists to treat many diseases not just in a more targeted fashion without invasive surgeries— but often earlier, especially in the case of genetic diseases, helping to curb disease pathways using nanorobots before their outcomes get severe and dangerous or painful for patients.
The Making of Lifesaving Nanorobots
Dispel any notions of traditional robots made in such tiny sizes! These little machines aren’t made of traditional tech, but are actually built with biological machinery instead: making them easier to design, and more cost-effective to use. And there are as many different kinds as you could imagine!
For example, at the Polytechnique Montréal Nanorobotics Laboratory, they first focused on the locomotion of the nanorobots, wanting to mimic the flagella which bacteria use to move through a body. But when they discovered that some strains of bacteria could be guided and directed using magnetic fields, they decided to skip the copying and go straight to the source, re-purposing of bacterial structures.
Since computers can easily be used to create small shifts in magnetic fields in a controlled environment, the laboratory quickly gained success with their bacterial bots, able to direct their healing therapies within a body. And since they were so small, it was easy to develop cellular armies of tens of millions, and provide them with special sensors to track cancerous cells… even when scientists and physicians couldn’t.
Other laboratories have had success co-opting DNA machinery to function as nanobots. Since DNA machinery already acts as miniature robots at the cellular level, and controlled based on easily-modifiable DNA strands added to solution, these small nanorobots can exercise very fine control: both delicate enough to fold microfilm origami.
Similar DNA-based microrobots have also been employed to target cancer. At UCLA, such microrobots have been trained to deliver drugs specifically to cancerous tissue, and to release it when instructed by special light wavelengths. This system of drug delivery can dramatically increase the efficacy of cancer-killing drugs, and save the patient from many severe adverse outcomes.
Right now, using nanorobots in medicine is still at the early stages, usually happening jointly between hospitals and the most cutting-edge laboratories. Though the science of nanotechnology has existed for almost 60 years, it’s only within the last decade that science has advanced enough for us to experiment with it in a practical way. From circulatory health to cancer to helping treat and cure genetic diseases, nanotechnology has many potentially lifesaving applications in medicine. It might be a medical treatment of the future, but as more and more pharmaceutical companies come on board to develop nanorobotic treatments that can be used without access to cutting-edge labs, that future gets closer and closer.