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Nanorobots and the Medical Industry

They’re called “nanomedibots” and they can travel inside the human body in order to release medicines, perform diagnostic activities and even carry out nanosurgical operations.

September 2014

Nanorobots IMALab News

Nanotechnology is the ability to understand and control matter at the very smallest scales, from around 100 nanometers all the way down to the dimension of single atoms (a nanometer is one thousand millionth of a meter).

Scientists have now succeeded in creating incredibly small robots – called nanorobots or nanobots – which are able to function on a near atomic level and perform a preprogrammed task in that dimension.

One of the most exciting applications of these new technologies is in the field of medicine.

"Nanomedibots" can actually be inserted into the human body and be guided by remote control, travelling through blood vessels, delivering drugs and, ideally, do everything from taking biopsies to repairing cells. 

This makes it possible to operate at an unprecedented level of precision, and it is completely changing the whole medical industry. The nanomedibots save a great deal of time and money because they can carry out intricate tasks safely and swiftly. In many cases, they can fix problems which would otherwise require invasive surgery.

Research continues to press ahead urgently, and the quest for ever increasing degrees of miniaturization is driven by a precise motivation: nanorobots for surgical tasks already exist and may be introduced into the body through the vascular system or at the ends of catheters into various other vessels and cavities in the human body, but it’s clear that the size of the nanomachine determines the minimum size of the blood vessel that it can traverse without damaging its walls.

Modern medicine has yielded wonderful advances in cardiovascular surgery, which have saved many lives.  Where once things like blood clots or plaque on arteries too delicate for cut and sew operations were considered untreatable and ultimately fatal, surgeons can now use micro devices to reach many of these locations. 

A surgical nanorobot could perform many other functions, such as searching for pathologies and then diagnosing and correcting any abnormal tissues or cells by nanomanipulation on a computer while maintaining contact with the supervising surgeon via coded ultrasound signals.

New York University has been developing nanoscale mechanisms from DNA particles, which are effectively nanoscale robots that literally walk on two microscopic legs: the goal is to use nanobots to repair molecular damage to the human body.

Drug delivery is another hot area where nanotechnology has made significant contributions: nanorobots are capable of carrying a medicine through the interior of the human body and then releasing it precisely at the point where it is needed.

Researchers at UCLA - University of California Los Angeles – are working on a new type of treatment called "light-activated drug delivery". Nanobots can carry chemotherapy drugs directly to tumor cells and release them when activated by a two-photon laser in the infrared red wavelength. Not only can the nanoparticles ferry drugs to precisely targeted areas of the body, but they are fluorescent and their progress can be tracked. This ability to track a targeted therapy is an example of a new blend of therapy and diagnostics, dubbed "theranostics." Being able to precisely pinpoint the target in the body so that the chemotherapy drug hits only tumor cells and not neighboring healthy tissue, greatly reduces the side effects of treatment while also increasing the drug's cancer-killing power.

Nanomedibots may also repair vital tissue damaged by injury or disease, or destroy cancerous tissue that has gone awry, without invasive surgery.

A team at the California Institute of Technology completed a clinical trial showing how tiny nanoparticles could be injected into cancer patients' bloodstreams and then turn off the switch in cancer cells that causes them to replicate (or make copies of themselves).

Although still far from a cure, the area of healthcare where nanotechnology has made its greatest contributions is in cancer detection and treatment. Nanotechnology is enabling new applications in the areas of molecular imaging and early detection, in vivo imaging, reporters of efficacy, multifunctional therapeutics and research tools.

Other applications are also being studied and tested. Nanorobots equipped with operating instruments and mobility will in future be able to perform precise and refined intracellular surgical tasks beyond the capabilities of direct manipulation by human hand. Microsurgery was a considerable refinement over crude macrosurgery, and it opened up the possibility of using procedures not previously risked or that were associated with high mortality and morbidity. By opening up dimensions far beneath the micro-scale, nanotechnologies will have a similar impact on medicine and surgery.

The greatest potential of nanomedicine will start to be fulfilled when we have learnt to design and construct complete artificial nanorobots using diamondoid nanometer-scale parts and subsystems, including sensors, motors, manipulators, power plants and molecular computers.

Diamondoids are a peculiar class of organic molecules with unique structures and properties. They are called “diamondoids” because their carbon-carbon framework is completely or largely superimposable on the diamond lattice. Diamondoids are presently used as molecular building blocks - like a Lego - for biomedicine, materials science and nanotechnology: they can enable the design and manufacture of nanometer-scale structures programmed to have virtually any desired shape or property.

However, various key advances have still to be achieved: as researchers themselves admit, the confluence of medical, physical, chemical, and computer sciences that is necessary for truly useful nanorobotics makes it one of the most complex and challenging interdisciplinary quests in modern research.