In the 1966 sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage, a microscopic spaceship—complete with crew—was injected into a scientist to remove a blood clot in his brain. The concept, which helped earn the film two Academy Awards, might be less far-fetched than audiences believed when it first hit the big screen.
Fast-forward 50 years, and scientists are studying ways to take a similar approach to medicine (minus the spaceship and crew) in a field called nanorobotics.
The goal: to make robotic components about the scale of a nanometer—that means one billionth of a meter—that are capable of medical innovations ranging from treating infections and eliminating blood clots to delivering medicines directly to targeted cells. The FDA has approved about 30 drugs delivered in nanoparticles since the first nano-drug, Doxil, was approved as a targeted chemotherapy medicine in 1995.
Eliminating blood clots and delivering medications to specific cells are the biggest applications. There is also interest in using the robots for early disease detection, to repair damaged cells, and to help with DNA replication.
Scientists continue to grapple with creating micro-machines that can work in the most complex machine in the world—the human body.
In the U.K., Jeremy Baumberg, professor of nanophotonics and director of the NanoPhotonics Centre at Cambridge University, has devoted his career to studying nanorobotics.
Baumberg shared his thoughts on the use of nanorobots in health care and why it’s so challenging to make real life mimic science fiction in a phone interview with TakePart. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
TakePart: What is nanorobotics?
Jeremy Baumberg: Most people have something [Isaac] Asimov–like in their minds: A submarine is inserted into the blood and goes around fixing things, but it’s not quite like that. In our bodies, bacteria are biological motors with corkscrew tails that move through our blood; that is what we are attempting to mimic.
Nanorobots are autonomous robots that act like little organisms. These small robots are 10 to 100 times bigger than an atom and 10 to 100 times smaller than a human hair, making them large enough to have motors or pumps or syringes and small enough to travel through the smallest vessels. Using nanorobots to target cells or deliver medicine mimics how the body works and is a much more clever way to treat disease.
TakePart: Are nanorobots currently being used in medicine?
Baumberg: No. We are still very much in the research phase.
We have the basic building blocks, the seeds of what these nanorobots will eventually be, but most of the nanorobots that exist right now don’t go anywhere or do anything. There are some that have gotten to human [clinical] trials but it’s going to be about 20 years before we see them being used in medicine.
TakePart: What will it take to get there?
Baumberg: There are some things we do quite well with regards to nanorobots: We are quite good at making sensors that spot single molecules or making small electrical wires for things to bind to. There are things we are not doing well.
One of the big issues is that we are not good at powering nanorobots, at making them move, at controlling them. Some have magnetic components and can be guided from outside the body with a magnet; others use radio waves to create heat that destroys the cells that bind to it, but these are not as sophisticated as we’d like them to be.
The goal is to power them in a way that mimics what happens in the body, similar to the way bacteria move. The challenge is so hard that researchers often can’t conceive of it being practical.
TakePart: But there are a lot of people working on the challenge, correct?
Baumberg: Yes. This is a very exciting field of research, and it has attracted a lot of attention, which is important because overcoming the challenges we are facing requires a lot of people working on it.
There is no Grand Challenge with nanorobots; all of the research is not focused on curing a specific disease like cancer. Instead, a lot of researchers are working on different bits of the puzzle that will eventually fit together. I expect to spend the rest of my life working on this.
TakePart: Are there misconceptions about nanorobots?
Baumberg: Misconceptions and a lot of fear. A lot of people are afraid that the robots will take over our bodies just like in the movies. The field is still developing, and right now, we can make nanorobots, but there isn’t much we can do with them, so there is no reason to be afraid. In 100 years, that might change [laughs], but we’re safe for now.
Seriously, there is such strong regulatory framework around this technology that there is not much likelihood that nanorobots will morph into something from a science fiction film.
The other big misconception is that the technology already exists, that we are currently using robots to deliver medicine or target cells. There is a belief that reality should have caught up with science fiction, and we should already be able to make these things.
It takes a long time to catch up because it’s difficult, but we’ll get there.