What if there was a tiny robot that could travel through your bloodstream, without harming any of your healthy cells, until it came across a cancerous tumor to destroy? Well, scientists may have developed just that.
A team from Arizona State University and The Chinese Academy of Sciences spent five years developing this teensy-weensy robot, which was inspired by origami and built out of DNA strands. It’s smaller than one one-hundredth of a human hair (90 nanometers by 60 nanometers), and it gets injected into the bloodstream to seek out cancer.
The mini programmable cancer warrior flows harmlessly along with the blood until it comes across a tumor. DNA aptamers on the machine’s surface detect a protein called nucleolin, which is only found in high concentrations on the outside of tumor endothelial cells, triggering the robot to spring into action.
The robot unfolds and releases an enzyme called thrombin. Thrombin causes the blood to clot, blocking the tumor’s source of food.
It takes just two to four molecules of thrombin, packed into just one of these microscopic machines, to block off an entire blood vessel that feeds a tumor. Visible tissue damage will then occur in the tumor within 24 hours.
Researchers have tested the robot’s capabilities on ovary, breast, skin, and lung cancer in both mice and pigs. In the mice, survival times were doubled. The next step is to test the robot in human clinical trials.
Complete tumor regression does not happen in every case, but this technology is capable of fully destroying a tumor if it can come across all the right blood vessels (which may require multiple robots). At the very least, the mini robots could slow the spread of cancer, giving terminal patients longer lives and more opportunities to try out other treatments.
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, says the robots will be able to fight off several different diseases, not just the ones they’ve tested.
“This technology is a strategy that can be used for many types of cancer, since all solid tumor-feeding blood vessels are essentially the same.”
Watch the video below to see the tiny medical robots do their heroic work!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?