Nanorobots for treating cancer have moved from theory to practise

DNA origami nanorobots use long DNA chains that are folded into specific shapes, creating tiny containers.  They can recognise specific cell types using molecules called aptamers.  Once they reach their target cells, they can deliver payloads such as drug molecules.

“In essence, the approach co-opts a number of strategies of our immune systems, with the robots playing the role of white blood cells that hunt down problematic cells and destroy them,” the BBC reported in 2012.

The BBC was reporting on laboratory tests that had been conducted by researchers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

Harvard’s DNA nanorobot is a clam-like bot that can release its drug payload only when it reaches and identifies its target, cancer cells.

In 2015, The Week also reported on the work of the researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute. The tiny devices were constructed out of DNA strands and folded into a shape resembling a clamshell, The Week wrote, noting that the nanorobots can be pre-programmed to open up in the presence of cancerous cells.  When they open, they release antibodies that cause the cancer cells to self-destruct

Wyss Institute: A cell-targeting, payload-delivering DNA robot, 16 February 2012 (6 mins)

Read more: Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute Develop DNA Nanorobot to Trigger Targeted Therapeutic Responses, Wyss Institute, 16 February 2012

In 2023, Tech Times reported on researchers from New York University, USA, and Ningbo, China, who had created self-replicating nanorobots entirely made of DNA.

Not all nanorobots being researched use long DNA chains.  In 2017, the World Economic Forum published an article about researchers at Durham University in the UK developing molecular nanomachines with short peptide addends.  These tiny robots – 50,000 of them would fit across the diameter of a human hair – were touted to have the potential to pack a mighty punch in the fight against cancer. The researchers used nanobots to drill into cancer cells, killing them in just 60 seconds.

In the video below, researchers at Rice, Durham and North Carolina State Universities demonstrated in laboratory tests how the molecular nanomachines driven by light have been used to drill holes in the membranes of individual cells.

Rice University: Rice University nanomachines constructed to deliver drugs, destroy diseased cells, 30 August 2017 (3 mins)

However, in July 2023, a paper published in the Journal of Haematology & Oncology reviewed and analysed the recent advancements of nanobots in cancer treatments.  While many experiments are being conducted in vitro, or in living organisms, it warns of their limitations in clinical settings.

The study reviewed nanorobots that use various power sources such as semi-natural nanorobots using magnetic propulsion, ultrasound-driven nanorobots and biologically-driven nanorobots.  Under the section titled ‘Nanorobot-assisted cancer diagnosis and targeted therapies’ the paper reviews various DNA nanorobot designs including DNA origami.

The following is extracted from the ‘Abstract’ and the ‘Perspectives and conclusions’ sections of the paper.

If nanobot injection becomes an option, will you volunteer to take the first steps to become a cyborg?

For those who would like to bury their heads in the sand and believe this is all just a “conspiracy theory,” below is some further reading:

Featured image: DNA origami nanorobot.  Source: Inverse


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