Some of the brilliant science technology tools being developed today have found admirers in science fiction and superhero universe for a long time. They are used liberally in this world of heroes well before they make an actual appearance in the world of men. Sometimes, these tools are just around the corner.
Take for instance the nanotech demonstrated in recent times in the TV show The Arrow, used on one of the character named Ray Palmer. He is incapacitated by a dangerous, inoperable clot in the brain. But then advanced nanotech (invented by him) is injected into his body. The tiny robots clear up the clot before it can harm the man. Voila! He is up and ready for action! The tiny machines are the real champions here.
But are these little mechanical contraptions an accessible reality? Why are they not an integral part of mainstream medicine system yet? What all can we achieve with their help?
What is a Nanorobot?
A nano meter is actually 10-9 meters. Nanotechnology therefore deals with studying, designing, and creating machines on the nano scale. In terms of medicinal technology, a machine or a robot that works at a cellular or molecular level to help diagnose and treat would be a nanorobot. This field of nanotechnology, that employs the ideas of both engineering and medicine, has been more of a theoretical than a practical discipline. These fanciful nanorobots have many different names like nanoids, nanobots and nanomites.
It is important for you to put away whatever preconceived image of a robot, tiny or otherwise, you may have. A robot is any machine that works automatically. You could have it release medicines or remove rogue cells. You could use it to capture live images from within our bodies, and direct it to respond to what you see. Alternately, it may be programmed to do a specific task already. Basically, any miniscule appliance or carrier that you’re sending inside your body, and which has the ability to navigate to the relevant location, is then a nanorobot.
Medical nanorobot. Computer artwork of a medical nanorobot injecting a drug into an infected cell in a human body. The cell is a T-cell, a type of white blood cell that mediates cellular responses of the immune system. Some T-cells are affected by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). The drug may be treating the cell for infection by HIV. This is an example of the future development of microscopic robot technology to treat diseases in new ways.
Are these nanobots at work already?
Nanorobots allow for minimum invasion, supervision and maintenance, with maximum results! There’s enough incentive for the industry to aggressively pursue nanotech and have it go mainstream. Why aren’t we there yet?
A frustratingly true fact is that the human body is way too complex – much more than any man-made machine. Because our body tends to attack foreign particles, the number of substances that can we can incorporate in these nanorobots narrows down. We need a passive outer design that can help our machine to flow in our bloodstream undetected by various warrior cells. But it needs to simulate biological systems and so requires motility and active response to problem areas to function properly. Most of the Nano robots are designed to be similar in action and architecture to say, microorganism like bacteria.
But the research is fraught with other problems apart from the sheer magnificence of human body’s complexity. In the lab, countless designs are debated and when several copies of one design are made, they are tested on small cultures of say, cancer cells, and on synthesized DNA. Even if the designs are successful in reducing the problem, it is difficult to ascertain if they will be effective inside the body, where they will have to navigate and identify problem cells amongst several healthy tissues. Additionally, clinical trials are not easy to gain approval for. Nevertheless, one step in this journey has been taken a long while back.
Nano-particle based drugs are already used globally. The sophisticated mechanism involves nanoparticle carriers which carry a drug within them, and release it in the target location, as opposed to taking in drugs orally or intra-venous that may affect healthy cells too. The FDA generally approves fewer nanoparticle based drugs than their traditional counterparts. Even though the former are safer, they are bound by economical and statistical constraints. Though these drugs are quite different from the nanobots that we wish to develop, they are an encouraging step in this arduous journey.
The myriad possible uses of nanorobots
For dispensing drugs
Intensive research is currently underway on mechanizing the nanoparticle based drugs and (converting them into nanobots) to improve their efficiency. Apart from the convenience of dispensing the drugs, nanorobots could help in keeping track of treatment, and break down automatically once the desirable effects have been achieved. The important factor here will be identifying the target area. This will be done by say, adding a beacon or bait like molecule which attracts a protein that is unique to the faulty cells. This marker protein will work like a key that will open up the nabob to release the drug inside, and not before.
For battling blood and vessel related problems
Blood is prone to damage. As it carries different molecules across our body, sometimes the vessels face some unwanted debris deposition. This could lead to clot formation as well. Such accumulation, called sclerosis can hinder proper blood flow and lead to oxygen depletion and heart attacks. Nanobots can be used to clear away such debris by breaking them into smaller pieces, thus preventing great losses. Conversely, nanobots can help build up weaker vessel walls to prevent hemorrhages. Or even act as fast acting clotting agents in cases of big injuries. Or cross the blood-brain barrier.
One of the great uses of nanorobots is in potentially preventing brain aneurysms. When the endothelial lining is injured, there occurs a change in chemic composition of the area as some chemicals start building up there. If we can devise machines that sense this change and work on it, we can possibly prevent brain aneurysm. For this, we need to create machines that can track this change, thus identifying aneurysm early on and prevent the fatal hemorrhaging.
For treating cancer
One of the major challenges modern healthcare is currently grappling with is timely cancer detection. Of course, newer, safer and more effective methods of treatment are being developed, but we need further research. In fact, nanoparticle based drugs are already finding themselves in cancer treatment. But new screening methods are few and far between. The industry needs techniques that can help us detect cancer before it metastasizes and becomes difficult to treat. With advanced bio-sensing abilities, Nanorobots may well positioned to assist us.
Tumor cells have different surface markers than the healthy ones. A bio-engineered device with functional groups that seek out such markers were to be introduced in the body, they will accumulate to the site of tumor. This accumulation may be screened for and so, small tumors in early stages that are undetectable otherwise can be seen. Further, if they were to carry drugs against this type of cells, they can even help destroy it! Unlike chemotherapy this doesn’t even affect harmless cells.
The list doesn’t end here. Nanomedicine may be a work in progress, but exciting research and a heap load of optimism have already given way to daughter fields like nanosurgery, nano genetherapy and, even, hopefully less scary than the traditional – nanodentistry. The ultimate dream of nanotechnology researchers is to one day make nanobots that can be injected into the body at a young age, like a vaccine, to keep a track of all that goes inside and alerting us before any illness gains foothold, thus reducing the burden on the overworked medicinal staff around the globe and improving the quality of human life.