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NanoBots: The science of small to dwarf the disease

Published on 10/05/18 at 11:01am
Image credit: Laura sofia muñoz oquedo

Anjali Shukla delves into the exciting, miniature world of nanorobotics to explore how the ground-breaking technology promises to change the face of targeted treatment as we know it.

For the most part, the idea of micro robots running through the bloodstream, setting right whatever is ailing the body, seems like a narrative right out of a sci-fi movie. Well, not anymore. Tiny-sized bots ready to assist in surgeries and treatment of cancerous diseases are closer to reality than previously thought.

Researchers have been busy testing the utilisation of so-called nanobots to treat a variety of healthcare issues including the unclogging of blocked blood vessels, conducting biopsies and fighting cancer. The idea is to reach otherwise inaccessible areas of the body for most effective treatment.

Nanorobotics is essentially the branch of engineering technology used to create robots using the nanometer scale (10-9 metres, with one nanometer being one-billionth of a metre). To get an idea of the scale we are dealing in here, a nanobot is about the size of a red blood cell, or smaller. In essence, a nanobot is an extremely small robot operating on a microscopic scale.

Nanobots in oncology

Treatment of complex diseases like cancer, gene mutations and AIDS has hit roadblocks given the challenge of getting the treatment to the right target in the body. Treatments like chemotherapy involve killing of diseased cells as well as the healthy ones. In this regard, nanobots can prove to be an important step in targeted treatment. Compare it, if you will, to a literal surgical strike of only the affected parts, as opposed to a carpet-bombing that is chemotherapy.

The World Health Organization has attributed cancer to be one of the major causes of mortality and morbidity across the world, with about 14 million new cases and 8.2 million cancer-related deaths in 2012 alone. In the face of these staggering numbers, the potential playing field for nanomedicine is huge, and demand for it is only likely to see an upswing and eventually boost market progress.

Development of novel nanotechnology-based drugs and therapies is driven by the need to develop therapies that have fewer side-effects and that are more cost-effective than traditional therapies, in particular for cancer.

The technological advancement, once made fully compatible for regular medical use, has been forecast to completely revolutionise the way most complex diseases are treated today. Additionally, the technology can potentially be tweaked to include biodegradable implants that have longer lifetimes, while also adding the advantage of tissue restoration following the procedure.

In a very science-fiction-like way, the technology can potentially be imagined as a troop of miniscule robots swimming through the veins and fixing the problem at the precise problem site. This would not only be a more effective way of treating the disease, but would also completely cut out any risks of side effects.

According to a recent study, nanobots made of DNA showed success in killing cancerous tumours in mice, utilising a precise drug delivery mechanism. The scientists were able to demonstrate that nanobots could potentially act as intelligent delivery vehicles to target cancer cells. The DNA nanobots were programmed to find and inject drugs directly to the cancerous tumours, which resulted in cutting off their blood supply. This in turn led to the shrinkage, and eventually the elimination of the tumour.

The paper explained: “Using tumour-bearing mouse models, we demonstrate that intravenously injected DNA nanorobots deliver thrombin specifically to tumour-associated blood vessels and induce intravascular thrombosis, resulting in tumour necrosis and inhibition of tumour growth.”

Hao Yan, Director of the ASU Biodesign Institute’s Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics and the Milton Glick Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, said: “We have developed the first fully autonomous, DNA robotic system for a very precise drug design and targeted cancer therapy.

“Moreover, this technology is a strategy that can be used for many types of cancer, since all solid tumour-feeding blood vessels are essentially the same,” he added.

Eventually, the goal is to ascertain that the same results can be achieved for human patients. However, it will be a while before the technology is ready to treat humans.

The study targeted delivery of drugs to mice with human breast cancer tumours. The results showed these nanobots successfully got hold of vascular cells in the cancerous tumours within 48 hours. This caused blood clotting in the afflicted areas and eventual killing of the tumours. In addition, the study showed the nanobots did not cause clotting in other parts of the body, but only the targeted cancerous cells.

Medical treatments available right now expose the entire body system, and not just the ailing part, to the drugs. This in turn leads to the problem of side-effects. Take, for instance, treatments like chemotherapy, which involves killing of healthy cells along with cancerous ones, in addition to exposing the entire body to severe overall side-effects. Nanobots have the potential to revolutionise treatments for diseases like cancer if the treatment could directly be injected into the area with cancerous growth. Additionally, nanotechnology-enabled delivery system allows administration of drugs while ensuring enhanced cellular penetration of the drug as well as lower toxicity levels.

Intelligent drug delivery is just one of the significant applications for this branch of molecular engineering among a wide range. In addition to oncology, the technology has potential effective applications for infectious diseases, cardiology, and orthopaedics.

The market dynamics

Given the pace of technological advancement, the global market for nanomedicine is set to more than double to $350.8 billion by 2025, according to a report by the market research consultancy Grand View Research. The nanomedicine market was estimated to be worth $138.8 billion in 2016.

According to the report, technological advancements, along with relevant applications in early disease diagnosis, preventive intervention and prophylaxis of chronic, as well as acute disorders, are expected to bolster growth in this market. Given the funding boost for the programme from the governments across the world, the developments in nanorobotics engineering are also expected to induce potential to the market.

In addition, nanorobotics engineering projects that are attempting to target the cancer cells without affecting the surrounding tissues is anticipated to drive progress through to 2025.

The application of nanotechnology-based contrast reagents can also diagnose and monitor the effects of drugs being administered to patients. The fact that this can be achieved in a much shorter timeframe than what is currently possible is also a key driver for advancement in the field.

The overall ambitious growth prospects for nanotechnology are driven by the potential of the same technology to serve both diagnostic as well as the therapeutic arm of medicine at the same time. This makes the technology a unique and potent tool in scanning and treating a varied range of diseases and rightly driving the scale of research in the domain.

According to Grand View Research, about 40% of total nanotechnology products are in mid-stage trials and a bulk of these products is set to hit the markets as early as the next decade. Launch of the product range will be a key driver for the revenue stream through to 2025.

Furthermore, nanotechnology holds potential for customised treatment options going forward that could aid programmes for genetics-related disorders, making it a significant scanning and treatment option for precision medicine.

Given the available data, it is hard to ignore the possibilities the technology has to offer. Even though there is still a considerable amount of time before these minuscule robots can set everything right, the future so far for nanobots looks bright.

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