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Molecular robots latch onto cells, ID them for drugs

Formed of antibodies and DNA, these molecular automata could help design better drugs to fight cancer, autoimmune diseases.

The molecular bots were used in experiments with lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes I can't believe that it's 2013 and we still don't have tiny, disease-fighting robots swimming around in our bodies.

Well, researchers at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and Columbia University haven't created exactly that, but they have produced little critters that can latch onto targeted cells and "label" them.

The so-called molecular robots (aka molecular automata) are made up of antibodies and short snippets of DNA.

In a study in Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers described how these molecular robots could help design drugs that target harmful cells and leave surrounding beneficial cells alone.

In the study, the molecular robots identified multiple receptors on cells, enabling them to be increasingly specific when it comes to singling out cells that cause disease.

Receptors are like keyholes on cell surfaces that interface with external molecules to trigger cell functions or behavior.

The automata in the study were designed to target lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, in blood samples taken from healthy people. Once the automata targeted the cells, they fused and formed new strands of DNA.

The researchers were able to get the newly created strands to fluoresce in a solution, which would allow for populations of target cells to be labeled for identification and specific therapies.

"This is a 'proof of concept' study using human cells," study coauthor Sergei Rudchenko said in a release. "The next step is to conduct tests in a mouse model of leukemia."

If animal and human trials work, such molecular robots could be used to design drugs that fight cancer and autoimmune disorders without damaging healthy cells.

Because I can't break my addiction to calorie-rich bowls of ramen noodles, I'll be waiting for molecular bots that can clean out my arteries. Come on, science! Chop chop!