Video Source: National Cancer Institute

Can We Use Nanobots to Cure Cancer?

An exciting possibility for medicine

August 14, 2019, Bruno Jacobson

Nanobots are small "robots" ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers in size. Scientists are exploring different applications of nanobots in medicine and healthcare, to fight cancer as well as to unblock blood vessels.

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Nanobots in Medicine

Nanorobots are a promising new technology that has several potential uses. However, most of the applications that we have so far considered have revolved around medicine. 


One such case is in the field of haematology, which is the science of blood and blood diseases.

One main application of nanobots is to emulate red blood cells. In the 1990s, futurist Robert Freitas Jr. proposed the design of the respirocytes - a hypothetical artificial red blood cells that can be used as oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.

The total size of the respirocyte would be about one micron or 1000 nanometers; making it six times smaller than a normal red blood cell. This design would allow the robots to pass into the smallest capillaries and ensure much more efficient delivery of oxygen to tissue than is possible with organic red cells. It's also designed to carry 236 times more oxygen and carbon dioxide than a normal blood cell.

The medical benefits of working respirocytes would be enormous. For starter, the device will help scientists to create efficient and long-lasting artificial blood replacement fluids, for use in blood transfusions, and first aid scenarios. Its ability to wriggle through blood vessels and carry more oxygen to the brain can bring a new lifeline for patients suffering from cardiovascular disease. 

Another area where nanorobots can be of use is haemostasis. Haemostasis is a process to prevent and stop bleeding by keeping blood within the damaged blood vessel, allowing the wound to heal. The average time for natural haemostasis to occur is 5 minutes, and in life or death situations, it could make a huge difference. Nanobots can help to speed up this process.

A two-micron nanorobot containing biodegradable fibre mesh as thin as 0.8 nm would be released into the wound upon command from its control computer. Upon contact with plasma water, the soluble thin films coating parts of the mesh would dissolve and trap the blood cells in the overlapping artificial nettings released by multiple neighbouring activated artificial mechanical blood platelet, and halt the bleeding. This process may allow complete hemostasis in as little 1 second, even in large wounds.
Finally, another potential application of nanorobots in medicine could be a disease-fighting machine. A group of engineers at the University of California San Diego have developed ultrasound-powered nanorobots that can swim through blood and remove harmful bacteria. The ultimate goal of the robots, said Berta Esteban-Fernández de Ávila, co-first author and a postdoctoral scholar in Wang’s research group at UC San Diego, is to detoxify and decontaminate biological fluids. 


Another potential use is in dentistry. According to this paper, practically all elements of dental care could benefit from the application of nanorobots. This ranges from routine cleaning and cosmetics to orthodontics. In a root canal, these tiny robots could be equipped with a small camera, which would reduce any uncertainty around the situation and could improve the effectiveness of the procedure. 


The applications of nanobots can even extend as far as cancer diagnosis and treatment.

According to the IFL Science article, scientists have been testing nanobots to seek out and destroy cancer cells actively. In the 2012 design, the nanobots would operate like white blood cells, patrolling the bloodstream and looking for signs of distress. When the robots recognise a target cell, they will release a tiny but deadly cargo of drugs or nanoparticles. These nanoparticles would then interfere with the growth of the cancer cells and force them to self-destruct. This type of precision medicine allows the tumour cells to be targeted while leaving healthy cells alone. This is significant as it could also decrease the side-effects of chemotherapy.

In 2018, joint research from researchers at Arizona State University and the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences successfully used nanometre-sized robots to treat cancerous tumours in mice. 

Researchers injected nanobots into the bloodstream of the test subjects. The nanobots travelled through the bloodstream, targeted the blood vessels around cancerous tumours, and released blood clotting drugs to cut off the blood supply to the tumours. According to the study, the treatment was successful in shrinking the tumours and inhibiting their spread.


Can We Use Nanobots to cure cancer? It's too soon to say

Despite all the benefits that come with nanobots, some challenges persist.

For one, the process of building them and synthesising enough material to test them on can take years, as it is generally done step-by-step on microscopic scales.

According to an article in the Atlantic, another challenge involves understanding whether testing works or not.

Unlike a drug delivered to treat cancer, for instance, where what matters is the effectiveness with which it treated it, with nanorobots we also need to understand the process, the movements that took place inside the body, and so on. That's a lot harder and there isn't a great way to do that just yet, though computer simulations have started to be helpful in this area. 

Finally, while nanorobotics is promising, plenty of other forms of treatment, diagnosis, or simply monitoring also are.

And on top of that, those alternatives are also years ahead in terms of research, as is the case with immunotherapy for example.

So even considering all the potential applications, there's still an uphill battle for this new technology if it intends to compete with other more established alternatives. 

It is encouraging to see new technologies tackling problems we have faced for a long time, nonetheless. Nanorobotics remains an exciting possibility and a growing trend. Perhaps, with a bit of fortune and sooner than we think, nanorobotics will become ubiquitous in the field.

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