February 2012
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Killing Cancer with Tiny Robots

by / Sunday, 19 February 2012 / Published in Science

I’m a fan of tiny robots.  In my future, helpful and malicious micro machines saturate people’s bloodstreams, hunting disease and keeping people young.  Entire wars are fought by unseen insectian enemies.  The possibilities for miniaturized machines are infinite.  I’m just hoping I live long enough to get my first intelligent swarm injection.

Nature already understands the necessity of tiny helpers.  Billions of microbes call your body home.  Your eyelashes, the back of your knee, your fingers, and the tiny crevices in your skin seethe with microorganisms.  For every cell in your body ten microbes roam your systemNow researchers at Harvard are working to make that a reality, studying biology and engineering DNA robots that can seek out and kill cancer cells.

“Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have developed a robotic device made from DNA that could potentially seek out specific cell targets within a complex mixture of cell types and deliver important molecular instructions, such as telling cancer cells to self-destruct.”

The beauty of this system is that micro machines can seek out specific DNA and deliver a payload, like a lock that only opens because it finds the right combination.  Drugs, for all the miracles they’ve provided people, are blunt instruments.  They’re the bio equivalent of a sledgehammer.  They kill good cells and bad.  The best drugs minimize collateral damage, but they’re still no better than using a bowie knife to do heart surgery.

“The DNA barrel, which acts as a container, is held shut by special DNA latches that can recognize and seek out combinations of cell-surface proteins, including disease markers. When the latches find their targets, they reconfigure, causing the two halves of the barrel to swing open and expose its contents, or payload. The container can hold various types of payloads, including specific molecules with encoded instructions that can interact with specific cell surface signaling receptors.”

The researchers have a way to go.  They can’t keep their robots alive long enough in a real body.  Our immune systems terminate them before they get very far.  Eventually we’ll need to find ways to coat them or signal the immune system they’re friendlies.  Of course, that also opens us up to the second kind of robot I’ve long imagined, the malicious military or surveillance and tracking kind, but everything has a dark side.  If we design machines that can selectively kill diseases without causing collateral damage, we need to do it.  We’ll deal with the nasty side effects when we get there.



2 Responses to “Killing Cancer with Tiny Robots”

  1. Marie says : Reply

    Wish this was in fact reality for the 2 people I love that need this concept. We joke that Kryptonite is the answer. Like your Robots concept immensely. Someday I believe it will come to fruition. After all, some Surgeries have come to this.

    • Dan Jeffries says : Reply

      Yeah, I think everyone is interested in cancer treatments because they know someone who died from cancer. We’ve come a long way, but our drugs are really blunt force. They basically just infected a ton of mice and threw various combinations of chemicals at them to see what happened to develop the current generation of drugs we use. It was effective but crude, and not scaleable. Most biotech companies that I work with are firing chemists and hiring biologists. The hope is the drugs can be designed. Next they’ll be hiring roboticists and bioengineers inspired by nature, aka biomimicry engineers, like the Harvard team. Of course, we might all miss the boat, but it’s exciting that people are even working on this and it provides hope.

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