A cure for cancer? Scientists look to tiny nanobots to target and kill infected cells

Andrew Fazekas

Imagine tiny microscopic robots carrying anti-cancer drugs being injected into the human body and having them seek and destroy tumours directly.

Medical researchers working out of University of California have come up with nano particles they are calling ‘nanoporphyrins’ that they claim can zero-in and kill cancer cells like tiny torpedoes.

The new study, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, outlines how a medical team is able to piggyback a tumor recognition module onto a nanobot which can rapidly finish off any cancerous growths by directly attaching and injecting chemotherapy drugs into the tumor.

Of course, this targeted scenario of treating cancer holds the promise of being very different from the nuclear bomb approach used now in standard chemotherapy treatments which can potentially harm surrounding healthy cells.

We all know that cancer is a killer, but the numbers are astounding.

According to World Health Organization stats from 2012, cancer is one of the leading cause of death globally with 8.2 million deaths and over 14.1 million new cases reported annually. In Canada alone, nearly 30% of all deaths are caused by cancer with an estimated 191,300 new cases of cancer expected in 2014.

Some say the idea of nanobot medicine may remain in the realm of science fiction unless researchers are able to figure out how these tiny weapons can reliably detect cancer cells and not have the body’s own immune system attack the little invader.

But great strides have been made in the advances of nanobot medicine recently. Late last year an international team of researchers announced they had created a molecular-sized cage – a true breakthrough combining nanotechnology and biomedicine. This interwoven lattice of molecules can open and close with varying temperatures and would be ingestible like a pill. It could carry drugs that could trap and kill cancer cells and even fool them into thinking they are harmless molecules.

But don’t hold your breath – these DNA cages are still on the drawing boards, existing only through computer simulations as a proof of concept.

Meanwhile, Chinese researchers recently announced that they have developed a magnetically steerable nanobot cage that could carry medicine directly to sensitive spots in the body, like the eyes or brain.

And just last month, a German-led team announced they have come up with a propeller-shaped nanobot that is so small that it can actually bore through pores in human tissue. The silica-based corkscrew measures only 70 nanometers across – that's a 100 times smaller than a red blood cell.

In the not-so-distant future we may very well have a drug-carrying robot no wider than a human hair target and kill only malignant tissue, while leaving all other surrounding healthy cells unharmed. It’s not hard to see why caregivers and patients alike would be excited.

The possibility of carrying out a full on war with cancer without any chance of collateral damage – that day cannot come soon enough.

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