“It’s all a matter of scale,” says an old adage. According to medical researchers, we’ll soon have access to robots produced on such a tiny scale that they can actually be injected into the bloodstream in order to attack diseases, diagnose medical issues and heal internal wounds. If it sounds futuristic, then the future is here. Researchers have spent the last 10 or more years developing so-called nanotechnology and nanomedicine with the intention of curing diseases – including cancer – that have been impossible to cure in the past.
The idea is not entirely new, however, as the beginnings of nanotechnology are thought to have been inspired by a 1959 lecture given by American physicist Richard Feynman. Since then, medical researchers have been working on the techniques and are now in a position to literally change the world with their findings.
Nanotechnology and Cancer
According to Dr. Omid Farokhzad, who spoke just a few days ago about medical nanotechnology at the World Science Festival, a new cancer drug is being developed based upon particles that are just 100 nanometers in length. Dr. Farokhzad said that this is so small, 1,000 of the particles equals the width of a single human hair.
Each tiny particle is coated in molecules similar to water, which effectively makes them invisible to the immune system (if not for this, the body’s immune system would attack the tiny particles, mistaking them for dangerous foreign particles). The particles also include molecules that allow them to specifically seek out cancer cells. As the tiny particles locate cancer cells, they infiltrate them physically and release toxins designed to kill the cancer cells. According to a study completed last year by Farokhzad and other researchers, the nanoparticles successfully killed cancer cells while causing little harm to healthy cells – one of the primary hurdles faced by cancer researchers.
No More Manual Blood Sugar Maintenance for Diabetics?
Cancer isn’t the only disease that can be treated with new nanomedicine. The technology could also apply to diabetes, as researchers have already created nanoparticles capable of detecting blood sugar levels in the body. If the nanoparticles determine that blood sugar is too high, they release insulin, allowing cells to take in sugar. This technology could replace the burden of pricking fingers and injecting insulin among diabetics. So far, clinical trials in mice have been successful.
Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact
According to robotics and mechanical engineering professor Metin Sitti of Carnegie Mellon University, the leap to nanomedicine is quite natural because the cells in our immune system are actually tiny machines themselves, albeit organic ones. By developing robotic nanoparticles, we can go beyond the disease-fighting “machines” our bodies are able to generate naturally. Sitti and a team of researchers are currently working on a robot about the size of a dime that can be swallowed by a patient. Doctors can then use magnets to control the movement of the robot inside the body, where it can be used to biopsy diseased tissue and release drugs to treat said disease. The tiny robot is even outfitted with a miniature camera and LED light to allow for easy navigation.
But is nanomedicine safe? Researchers are paying careful attention to that aspect of this emerging technology as well. The original iteration of Sitti’s robot walked on tiny legs, which ended up causing unwanted damage to internal tissue. They redesigned the robot so that it rolls to move instead, solving the issue. Researchers are also developing nanoparticles designed to biodegrade safely in the body, after which they’d be excreted from the body as waste.
The Bottom Line
Medical researchers are working on a new tiny-scale technology known as nanoparticles. The implications could change the medical world forever and give us powerful tools in the battle against cancer and other difficult diseases.