Imagine being injected with an implant that will ensure you can breathe underwater. Imagine having tiny microscopic bio robots detecting and treating diseases without surgeons, or these little robots becoming little ‘drug factories’ producing pharmaceutical drugs at the specific damaged cell of the body and healing it.
Better yet, imagine being able to stretch out a section of DNA like a strand of pasta, to examine or operate on it, or imagine building nanorobots that can “walk or run” at controlled speeds to carry out repairs inside cell components.
Nanotechnology is bringing this technological dream nearer to reality. In his book, Engine of Creation, the MIT educated researcher in nanotechnology, Eric Drexler, pointed out that the 21st century would see the advent of manmade, self-replicating, miniscule machines which would repair cells and prolong human life.
Through the use of what are now known as nanorobots, nanostars and nanofactories, nanotechnology application in medicine has brought a significant shift in drug delivery and manufacturing. As the healthcare industry faces enormous pressure to deliver high-quality products to patients while struggling to maintain profitability, the use of nanorobots may advance biomedical intervention with minimally invasive surgeries. It will help patients who need constant body function monitoring; and improve treatment efficiency through early diagnosis of possibly serious diseases.
Implantable devices also known as nanochips have been used for continuous patient health data monitoring and acquisition. Patient monitoring can help in early stage diagnostic reports to fight cancer and also aid in blood pressure control for cardiology problems, among many other uses.
Nanobotics are currently the trending approach in bio medical research. Several successful products have been channeled into the commercial market. At the University of Free State (UFS), through ‘The Lipid Biotechnology Group’ researching yeast properties, research student Olihle Sebolia made a ground breaking discovery by uncovering a new series of compounds that may be used to lubricate a selection of nanorobots to be used to help kill cancer cells in the future. “In order to function properly, parts of the capsules are oiled with prehistoric lubricants – lubricants that are produced by yeasts and that probably existed for many millions of years as yeasts developed,” said Sebolai.
According to Sebolai, these capsules are so small that about 300 can be fitted into the full-stop at the end of a sentence and are therefore invisible to the naked eye.
“With my studies I discovered many new compounds that resemble these prehistoric lubricants. These lubricants may be used in future to lubricate manmade nanorobots,” said Sebolai.
In the USA, Ned Seeman and his team based at New York University (NYU) created a nanoscale robot from DNA fragments that walks on two legs of 10nm long. This biorobot was termed the ‘nanowalker’. The NYU research unit envisages using DNA nanotechnology to make a biochip computer that will find out how biological molecules crystallise. Biomimetics will help nanorobots understand and imitate some of the biological processes in nature, (e.g. the behaviour of DNA), and utilise this information in tissue engineering and repairs.
Nanobots made from other materials are also in development. Material scientists at Northwestern University in the USA are using gold and silver nano particles to make “nanostars”. These are simple, specialised, star-shaped nanoparticles that can deliver drugs directly to the nuclei of cancers cells. The researchers discovered that giving their nanobot the shape of a star increased the efficiency and precision at which nanoparticles would deliver drugs to infected cells. Researchers also argue that the star shape helps to concentrate the light pulses used to release the drugs precisely at the points of the star.
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US moved a step closer to demonstrating the feasibility of self-assembling “nanofactories” that make drugs and protein compounds, on demand, at target sites.
They discovered that while drug delivery systems of protein-based drugs are effective to a limited extent, they still have a problem with conventional delivery of such drugs, because the body breaks most of them down before they reach their destination. To counter this they will create what they term ‘nanorobotic factories’. These will manufacture or produce drugs in situ (in the body) at the specific target.
There is little doubt that nanorobots, implants and nanofactories will revolutionise human medicine in the near future. They will play a key role in monitoring and collecting health data information, and also play a key role in the diagnosis of chronic diseases such as cancer, high blood pressure, HIV/Aids and diabetes.
In this new era of mobile technology and wearable gadgets, the advent of nanorobotic therapies provides an opportunity to synthesise and transmit health data and information to help people understand their basic health conditions like sugar levels and blood pressure levels in the comfort of their homes. New discoveries are showing that nanorobots can be used in vaccines, sunscreen creams and gels, and also in cleaning detergents. They are already being used in dental care mouthwashes as mouth rinse products to remove bacteria and plaque in the USA.