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Nanomachines Fight Cancer

A close-up image of a diagram of a human male digestive system. (lungs truck, Flickr)

A close-up image of a diagram of a human male digestive system. (lungstruck, Flickr)

Futurists have been predicting for years that we could build microscopic robots to fight diseases inside the human body. And in 2018, it seems like scientists have made progress toward this becoming a real possibility.

In 2018, an international team of researchers reported that they developed a simple nanomachine that can destroy cancerous tumors inside the body. A nanomachine is a machine whose parts are single molecules only nanometers in size.

DNA Nanostructures

The researchers built their machine out of DNA. They learned to use DNA to build nanostructures with shapes, sizes, and structures they can control. Each machine is a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

To do their work, the machines would need to find the tumor inside the body which sounds hard. Anticipating this problem, researchers relied on their ability to make DNA molecules specialized to bind to only one kind of protein.

Nucleolin

They chose a protein called nucleolin, which is found only in certain tumor cells. The devices are injected into the bloodstream, which carries them to all parts of the body. But because they carry DNA that only binds to nucleolin, they only attach to tumor cells and not healthy tissue.

And when they reach the tumor, the machines need a way to kill it. Inside of each nanomachine is a cargo of the protein thrombin, which is released when the machine binds to a cancer cell.

Thrombin causes blood to coagulate. This coagulation cuts off the tumor’s blood supply and kills it. Because the machines only bind to the tumor, they won’t cause a stroke. This new technology could save millions of lives.

Thanks to Stephano Nobile of ‘G. Salesi’ Children’s Hospital, Ancona, Italy for reviewing this episode’s script.

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