Scientists unveil world's first cancer-fighting nanobot

Scientists at the Chonnam National University in South Korea have developed a microscopic robot that can detect and treat cancer from inside the body.

A CG image of the microbead with bacteria attached.
(Credit: Chonnam National University)

Scientists at the Chonnam National University in South Korea have developed a microscopic robot that can detect and treat cancer from inside the body.

Although chemotherapy is effective at treating cancer, it comes with some nasty side effects — including damaging healthy cells. Scientists at the Chonnam National University in South Korea may have come up with a solution: tiny, microscopic robots. Once injected into the bloodstream, they seek out and destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.

Called "bacteriobots", they consist of a genetically modified bacteria attached to a three-micrometre polystyrene microbead body. These bacteria are attracted to substances and proteins, such as the high concentrations of vascular endothelial growth factor, that are produced where cancer cells are present.

When the robot has successfully located cancer cells it sprays them with anticancer drugs.

The bacteriobots have been tested in tumorous mice, which were injected with bacteriobots coated in near-infrared fluorescence and bioluminescence. Another group of mice were injected with bioluminescent bacteria that had not been attached to microbeads. The control group was injected with inert microbeads without any bacteria attached. When they were extracted, the tumours from the control group showed no sigh of bioluminescence or fluorescence; the bacteria-injected group showed bioluminescence, but no fluorescence. Only the bacteriobot group showed both, indicating that the nanobots were the most effective of the three at targeting cancer cells.

Schmatic representation of the bacteriobots. (Credit: Chonnam National University)

At this stage, the bacteriobots are only effective at targeting solid cancers, such as tumours, or breast and colorectal cancers. The team hopes to develop the technology as a means of early intervention, as well as a method of detecting and treating what would otherwise be incurable malignancies.

"The importance of this research lies in the development of a new medical nanorobot and an active drug delivery carrier that can overcome the limits of conventional methods to diagnose and treat cancer," said study co-author Jong-Oh Park. "Our future plan is to develop medical microrobots or nanorobots capable of diagnosing and treating a lot of hard-to-treat illnesses through the convergence of medicine and engineering in our research."

The nanobots have been patented in countries around the world, including the US, the European Union and Japan. Human clinical trials are however, still some way away.

You can read the full paper online under the title "New paradigm for tumor theranostic methodology using bacteria-based microrobot" in the journal Nature.


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