Scientists send tiny nanomotors on ‘Fantastic Voyage’ into human cells

This microscopic view shows the gold nanomotors inside human cancer cells.Scientists have demonstrated for the first time that tiny nanomotors can be controlled inside human cells, driven by acoustic waves and directed magnetically. This promises to open up new methods of treatment for cancer and targeted delivery of drugs directly to where they're needed in our body.

The '60s adventure movie Fantastic Voyage revealed to the world the wonders that could be accomplished in medicine if we could only shrink people down to fit inside the cells of the human body. We're not likely to achieve that anytime soon, but this team of researchers from Penn State has just shown that soon we may be able to do the next best thing — build tiny robots to do the job for us.

Although nanomotors have been around for roughly a decade, they were powered by toxic chemicals, which showed the proof of concept, but weren't useful for medical science. Now, though, researchers have eliminated the toxic fuel by using tiny gold nanorods, which can be controlled by other means. They placed these gold nanorods where human cells — specifically cervical cancer cells called HeLa cells — could ingest them. Once the rods were inside the cell, they were propelled around through stimulation from acoustic waves. The researchers could even steer the nanorods by using magnetic fields.

This video from Penn State shows the nanorods in action:

Most, if not all, of the cells in the video have the gold nanorods in them, but they don't become active until the acoustic waves are focused on them (where the camera view is pointed).

"As these nanomotors move around and bump into structures inside the cells, the live cells show internal mechanical responses that no one has seen before," Tom Mallouk, a professor of materials chemistry and physics at Penn State, said in a university news release. "This research is a vivid demonstration that it may be possible to use synthetic nanomotors to study cell biology in new ways. We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside. Nanomotors could perform intracellular surgery and deliver drugs non-invasively to living tissues."

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Mallouk and his team have also discovered that each individual nanomotor could be made to move independently. Having a fleet of motors going in the same direction could be useful in some applications, but having each one move on its own opens up far more potential for the technology.

"One dream application of ours is Fantastic Voyage-style medicine," Mallouk said in the statement, "where nanomotors would cruise around inside the body, communicating with each other and performing various kinds of diagnoses and therapy. There are lots of applications for controlling particles on this small scale, and understanding how it works is what's driving us."

(Image courtesy: Mallouk Lab/Penn State)

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