Magazine article The Futurist

Nanobots to Fight Cancer: Built from DNA, Robots May Deliver Medicine Where No Doctor Has Gone Before

Magazine article The Futurist

Nanobots to Fight Cancer: Built from DNA, Robots May Deliver Medicine Where No Doctor Has Gone Before

Article excerpt

Medical nanorobots may soon be leaving the Petri dish and making their way to a drugstore near you. A team of researchers from the Harvard Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering has created a DNA-based nanorobot that can safely carry molecule-sized payloads, detect cancer, and attack that cancer with medicine.

The bot itself is less of a drone and more of a complex piece of fabric. Hundreds of short, single-stranded DNA pieces wrap themselves around a scaffold, "like the warp and weft in weaving cloth," according to researcher Shawn Douglas.

The mechanism for depositing the payload isn't an electronic actuator, as you would find in a conventional robot, but a chemical reaction. When the nanobots meet up with a particular protein that can indicate cancer (in their experiment, Douglas and his team used a leukemic cell marker), the nanostructure unlocks itself and releases a cancer-fighting antigen. The process is similar to the way viruses attack cells; the primary difference is that Douglas's nanobots don't hijack the cell to reproduce, as natural viruses do.

"Viruses (made of various combinations of protein, nucleic acids, and lipids) offer a good template for what materials work for performing complex interactions and manipulations of cells," said Douglas in an e-mail.

The research follows (but does not necessarily build upon) the work of New York University chemistry professor Nadrian Seeman, credited with pioneering the field of DNA-based nanostructures to perform complicated tasks.

But do these bio-based nano-creations still qualify as robots, or are they simply complex drugs?

"There isn't any established definition of a 'nanorobot." said Douglas. "We asked robotics expert Rob Wood at Harvard about the term, and he said to describe what it does in general terms. We said that it senses friend or foe, and when a foe is sensed, it changes shape and attacks. …

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