05 Sep The Machine In The Machine: Nanorobots Are Here
The human body is crudely analogous to a machine. Yet there is a rift between the cold silicon of artificial robots and the breathing tissue of biological organisms. With the rise of nanorobots, however, the dividing line between humans and machines is becoming fuzzier and fuzzier. Nanorobotics is a subfield of nanotechnology that deals with the development of molecular machinery designed to diagnose, treat and even prevent various illnesses from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in. Just as an artificial defibrillator can correct an irregular heartbeat, nanorobots can be inserted into the body to treat a host of maladies.
But how do nanorobots work? Picture a hexagonal tube a nanometer in size. The ends of the tube are connected by a latched hinge. The nanorobot is inserted into the bloodstream where it coasts along the murky waters looking for signs of distress. The nanorobot latches onto the surface of cells, which consist of a lipid bilayer embedded with protein molecules. If the nanorobot recognizes an abnormal protein molecule that is associated with a specific cancer, its latches swing open and administer a lethal cocktail of drugs that cause the cell to self-destruct.
Nanorobots have many advantages over traditional treatment methods. For example, a doctor might boost a patient’s immune system by administering a powerful antibiotic with
a syringe. The antibiotic becomes dilute as it travels through the bloodstream so that only some of the drug reaches the infection. In contrast, a nanorobot–or a team of nanorobots– could travel through the bloodstream and deliver the same drug at the site of the infection. The patient would suffer fewer side- effects and the drug would be able to better treat the infection.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Nanorobots could also assist in spinal surgeries by mending and re-attaching severed nerves. Furthermore, by working inside the body, nanorobots could perform various surgical procedures without requiring patients to go under the knife. Last, nanobots could also be used to break-up blood clots, dissolve kidney stones, clean wounds and destroy parasitic intruders. These ideas are preliminary. Nevertheless, they shed insight on the stupendous possibilities nanorobots might have to offer.
Sounds good in theory but do nanobots work in practice? Engineers face the daunting challenge of designing a minuscule machine that can effectively navigate through a maze of veins and arteries in order to deliver a specific drug on site. Although nanorobots are still in the early stages of development, preliminary trials on cockroaches and rats have shown promising results. According to two studies published in the journals Science and Nature, nanorobots were able to kill half the cancer cells in cockroaches in three days without causing damage to neighboring, noncancerous cells. Researchers plan to conduct the first nanorobotic trial on humans this year. The patient selected only has a few months to live. The researchers hope to remove the cancer cells inside the patient within one month.
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One challenge about treating cancer is the multiplicity of cancers that plague the humanity. Unlike HIV and Polio, which have diverse though similar strands, cancer is a beast of many rather than a beast of its own. Cancer occurs whenever a mutated cell makes copies of itself that fail to die. As a corollary, the cells conglomerate into masses or tumors. The tumors feed off the energy of neighboring cells, therefore depleting the body of nutrients. But the human body is made up of many different kinds of cells, meaning there is a vast range of shapes that cancer can take, from brain cancer on one end to pancreatic cancer on the other end. As of right now, nanorobots are capable of detecting twelve different types of cancer cells, including solid tumors and white blood cells associated with leukemia.
Using machines to treat various illnesses is sure to spark debate within the public square. Philosophers and theologians have spent centuries debating whether man is purely a material being or whether there is a ghost in the machine. Now, advances in health technology have given us something new to ponder: the machine within the machine.
This article was originally published in the 2015 Late Summer Issue of VETTA Magazine.