Imagine a world where, if you get sick, doctors inject tiny robots into your body that seek out the source of the problem and cure your illness. While this technology is still in the developmental stages, scientists have been hard at work making machines small enough to be able to do this. They are called nanobots and come from the field of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is any science, engineering, or technology that is done at the nanoscale, which is from 1 to 100 nanometers. And that is tiny! To put that into perspective, a sheet of paper is about 1 million nanometers thick, a human cell is 10,000 nanometers, a bacterium is 1,000 nanometers, and a DNA molecule is 2.5 nanometers.
Plenty of nanoparticles already exist in everyday things like sunscreen, agriculture, and electronics., But they are also used in medicine, inside your body. They are mainly used as a contrast agent in medical imaging techniques, improving their sensitivity and detection abilities, as well as a vehicle for delivering drugs to specific parts of the body.
But these particles aren’t controlled externally. They get to the desired location in the body with the help of an attached ligand, which is a molecule that binds to a very specific receptor, like one that is located only on tumor cells. To be considered a nanorobot, or nanobot, they must be able to be externally controlled. And this is challenging. Especially when you want to enter the body, which has a whole host of natural defenses against foreign invaders, like mucus and immune cells.
One popular propulsion method being explored is the use of a magnetic field. Since magnetic fields are not influenced by tissues in the body, and are considered safe, many scientists are developing tiny robots that can be controlled inside the body when a magnetic field is applied outside of the body. So far, all of these robots are larger than 100 nanometers, so can’t really be considered a true nanobot, but they are extremely cool.
Like the fish-shaped microbots being developed to deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to cancer cells, the slope-climbing millibots being made to medicate the nervous system, and a 400-nanometer surgical robot with propellers that can drill through an eye without harming the tissue.
But the smallest one is a 120-nanometer robot that can transport payloads like medicine, as well as penetrate cell membranes to deliver it, which most nanoparticles struggle to do. The creators hope to use it to treat cancer, remove blood clots, and even repair brain cells.
Other potential applications include collecting internal information about the body, correcting bleeding or oxygenation issues, and for many uses in dentistry. There are still many challenges that need to be overcome and risks that need to be addressed before these technologies will make it into the clinic, but perhaps one day soon these tiny robots could be saving our lives.
So would YOU ever have nanobots swimming around like the magic school bus in your body? Let me know how you feel about this in the comments! Are you for or against it? As always, my name is Blocko, this has been life noggin, don’t forget to keep on thinking!