Nanobots Can Now Enter Human Cell With Help Of Sound Waves, Offering Hope For Guided Missile Attacks On Cancer

By Gabrielle Jonas on February 12, 2014 3:47 PM EST

nanobot
Nanobots developed at Penn State University can move around the inside of a cell. They may be able to attack and destroy cancerous cells one day from the inside, out. (Photo: Photo courtesy of <a href=&)

Chemists can steer microscopic rocket-shaped minerals remotely inside live human cells for the first time, they reported Monday, launching the second generation of "nanomotors," sometimes called nanobots, and making what could be an important step toward pinpointing cancer cell by cell. Using ultrasonic waves, Penn State and University of Maryland chemists and physicists steered them magnetically, making the rocket-shaped gold-ruthenium particles dance: spinning and battering against cell membranes from the inside.

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The first-generation of chemically powered nanomotors (though they're not motors in the conventional sense, they are molecular, or nanoscale devices capable of converting energy into movement) were first developed 10 years ago at Penn State by a team that included Tom Mallouk, Evan Pugh Professor of Materials Chemistry and Physics, co-developer of the one described in the international edition of the journal, Angewandte Chemie, Monday. But, their fuels at the time were toxic and hence not suitable for use in cells. "That limitation was a serious problem," Mollouk said in a press release. That changed with Mallouk's and French physicist Mauricio Hoyos's development of ultrasonic-wave powered minerals, which are safe for living systems. The hope is that the nanomotors can one day be used to pinpoint cancer and hit it where it hurts on the intra-cellular level.

"We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside," Mallouk said. "Nanomotors could perform intracellular surgery and deliver drugs noninvasively to living tissues."

The team tested the nanobots on HeLa cells, a line of human cervical cancer cells. The HeLa cells "ingested" the nanobots; then, when Mallouk and Hoyos hit the particles with ultrasonic pulses, they were able to steer the rocket-shaped metal particles inside the cell, even bumping into organelles within the cell. By making them spin, they were able to whip the contents of the cell into mush, with the idea of one day killing cancer. They were also was able to use the nanometer as a kind of battering ram to puncture the cell membrane.Mallouk and his colleagues can make the nanomotors move independently of one another, an important ability for future applications. "Autonomous motion might help nanobots selectively destroy the cells that engulf them," Mallouk said,good for pinpointing cancer cells so that surrounding healthy tissue doesn't get destroyed in the process.

Referring to a 1960's film, Fantastic Voyage, where doctors are miniaturized and shot into a patient's bloodstream to save his life, Mollouk said, "One dream application of ours is Fantastic Voyage-style medicine, where 'nanomotors' would cruise around inside the body, communicating with each other and performing various kinds of diagnoses and therapy."

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