Our high standard of living in the developed world, combined with continuous technological advances, means we are now leading longer lives. So, is it too far-fetched to imagine a medical future where nanorobots march into our bodies to fight disease?
Scientists at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute believe the future isn’t as far away as it sounds.
They have successfully developed microscopic nanorobots—made of DNA and protein—that directly target tumours and stop them from growing. The nanorobots show early signs of success in pre-clinical trials.
The nanorobots successfully blocked the supply of blood to the tumour, starving it of nutrients and killing it. Testing has shown the targeted nanorobots are highly effective at reducing the growth and spread of breast cancer, melanoma and lung cancer.
The study is a collaborative effort, which involves a global team of research scientists from two medical research institutions.
Professor Greg Anderson, Head of the Chronic Diseases Program at QIMR Berghofer in Brisbane, is involved with the project, which is being led by researchers from the National Centre for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing. Professor Anderson explains the nanorobots are crafted using a technique called ‘DNA origami’, where specially constructed sheets of DNA are folded up and bound together to form a tube-like structure 90 nanometres by 60 nanometres in size (pictured above).
He said the blood-clotting enzyme thrombin is then embedded within the nanorobots, which are represented by the two purple elements shown in the 3D image.
"Thrombin is a naturally occurring protein that causes blood clots to form,” Professor Anderson said. “This ability can be harnessed to kill tumour cells by developing a system where the thrombin only causes clots in the blood vessels that are feeding the tumour and not elsewhere in the body.”
"When that happens, the tumour cells no longer receive essential nutrients and they die. That’s why this is such a clever delivery method,” he said.
"This highly-innovative nanomedicine venture shows the future direction of health care.
Using this DNA origami approach potentially provides a new method that could be used to help achieve the ultimate goal of eradicating primary tumours and their metastases,” said Professor Anderson.
It shows just what is possible with contemporary biomedical technology and hints at what may be the future of intelligent drug delivery.”
Professor Guangjun Nie, from the National Centre for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing said, “Through accurately controlling the dose of nanorobots, we should be able to improve their tumour-targeting efficacy while minimising side effects. We have moved to the pre-clinical trial stage now and we hope to finish all pre-clinical studies over the next few years.”
For further reading, the study is published in the February 2018 edition of scientific journal Nature Biotechnology.