Tiny robots in our blood could soon be used to sniff out and treat cancer

23 Nov 2017

Spirulina algae were coated with magnetic particles to form a microrobot. Image: Yan et al/Science Robotics 2017

In an effort to get to the hardest-to-reach places of the human body, a fleet of blood-cell-sized robots has been formed.

The latest efforts to harness robotics in the human body could see cancer cells attacked with extreme precision by a fleet of blood-cell-sized robots injected into the body, according to a paper published in the journal Science Robotics.

The breakthrough comes from an international team of researchers led by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which developed these nanobots by coating a microscopic algae with non-harmful, biocompatible magnetic particles.

By adjusting the thickness of their coating, the hardy robots can smoothly swim in biological fluids, such as dilute blood and gastric fluid, for as long as necessary before degrading safely in the patient.

During tests in the stomachs of rats, the devices released powerful compounds from the algae core during degradation, which selectively attacked cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

In terms of possible uses, the researchers believe the tiny robots could be tracked in tissue close to the skin’s surface by imaging the algae’s natural luminescence, and in hard-to-reach deeper tissue through magnetic resonance imaging.

A growing field of science

Qi Zhou, who worked on the study and is based at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, said: “A small-scale robot that can be remotely guided, is easily tracked and harmlessly biodegrades, potentially overcomes many of the challenges faced by minimally invasive therapies.

“We hope our discoveries will pave the way for the development of useful diagnostics or treatments.”

The area of nanobot research has been ramping up of late with some start-ups already working on developing their own creations, inspired by nature.

One such start-up is France-based Eligo Bioscience, which earlier this year revealed Series A funding worth $20m from Khosla Ventures and Seventure Partners.

Eligo’s technology uses greater precision treatment of the microbiome with biological nanobots – which it calls ‘eligobots’ – made from DNA and protein, which deliver a customised therapeutic payload to specific types of bacteria.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic