nanorobots illustration

The city is under attack. Not by invaders, but by its own set of disillusioned citizens who have turned rogue. They are wreaking havoc on the city, threatening its very existence. The administration acknowledges the danger and unleashes upon these rogue citizens its set of highly sophisticated warriors adept at identifying and annihilating them with ruthless precision. These warriors go about their task, maiming and killing rogues on their way, cutting off vital supply chains and, surely enough, the rogues cease to exist while the city slowly crawls back to normalcy. The city is our body, the rogue citizens cancerous cells and the sophisticated warriors nanorobots. Early studies have shown promise of these nanorobots successfully fighting cancer, strangulating the blood supply of tumours, stopping tumour growth and tumour progression.

The story of nanorobots (or nanobots) started with the pioneer Eric Drexler. It shows promise of encompassing diseases ranging from cancers to arterial blockages to fighting infections. A nanorobot’s size would be approximately that of a bacterium or smaller. Early pioneers in the field envisioned them to be composed of mechanical parts like gears, ratchets and bearings, resembling a miniature version of a full-sized mechanical device.

The nanorobots described in the study, however, are surprisingly simple. They are, in essence, a DNA origami that contains molecules, thrombin (a blood clotting molecule in this case) in its fold to target specific regions in the cancerous tumours. Once unleashed in the region of interest, it works by cutting off blood supply and heralding the death of the particular kind of cancer the patient is afflicted with.

And they are quick! In fact, they start working just hours after being injected. In an experiment, tumour tissue damage was registered within 24 hours. By the second or third day, blood clots were observed in all the tumour vessels, which translates into the sounding of the death knell of the tumours. The results of the studies showed that three out of the eight mice receiving the nanorobot therapy showed a complete disappearance of the tumours while the median survival rate more than doubled.

The elegance of this study can only be rivalled by a previous study at the Durham University, using nanorobots to drill into cancer cells, killing them within 60 seconds. Similar to the previous study, these tiny robots are again precisely targeted to the cancerous tumours. Once they reach the target, they are activated by light, during which they start spinning, around 2-3 million times per second. This action causes them to split the tumour open.

The power of nanorobots is indeed only starting to be understood. With increasing sophistication of the engineering technologies, more elegant answers to our medical problems can be expected in the future. To be fair though, these technologies will take time to realise their therapeutic value — especially in human beings. However, the ball has already started rolling and the answers might just be around the corner.

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