A new study is revealing recent successes in the design of nano-machines that can enter the bloodstream and deliver drugs to specific areas of the body while under human control in what could prove the future of medicine rather than a science fiction go-to topic.

Nanobots
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New study shows drug-delivery nanobots becoming reality

While science fiction has long envisioned a world where tiny little machines could enter our body for help or harm depending on the story, scientists are doing their best to make this a reality in the not too distant future.

According to a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale Lausanne (EPFL) and the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ) have designed a prototype of one such nanomachine that imitates bacterium to deliver targeted drugs by traveling through the bloodstream.

Upon introduction into the bloodstream these unpowered, flexible and soft nanobots’ tails fold away for a safe trip through the bloodstream. While there is much work to be done before they will ever enter the bloodstream of an actual living patient, the study is a bit of good news on a day, like many this year, only makes you want to crawl into a cave and never read the news again.

How the hell do you make a nanobot you can’t see?

According to the paper, first you start with nanoparticles and place them in layers of biocompatible hydrogel. Following this the researchers at the two institutions employed an electromagnetic field in order to get the nanoparticles lined up where wanted and needed inside the microbots. Once that step is accomplished the hydrogel must be solidified through polymerization. From here, this creation is submerged in water and following the researchers direction folds into the final product.

While the nanobots are not powered they are able to be made to swim through the application of electromagnetic fields. The researchers are also able to use lasers to heat up the microbots, almost like a Shrinky-Dink of the 70s and 80s, to get them to change their shape as needed.

The end result is essentially a man-made African trypanosomiasis, a bacteria with parasitic qualities that uses its tail to move about but whose tail wraps around the bacterium once in the bloodstream of the host.

“We show that both a bacterium’s body and its flagellum play an important role in its movement,” said EPFL scientist Selman Sakar “Our new production method lets us test an array of shapes and combinations to obtain the best motion capability for a given task. Our research also provides valuable insight into how bacteria move inside the human body and adapt to changes in their microenvironment.”

The researchers hope that these nanobots could help in clearing arteries as well as treating diseases with medicines delivered with pinpoint precision. Essentially providing a number of solutions that don’t involve invasive surgery that could forever change medicine. There are, it nearly goes without saying, many hurdles in the way of any practical application including potential side effects.

“There are still many factors we have to take into account,” says Sakar. “For instance, we have to make sure that the microrobots won’t cause any side-effects in patients.”

Whether a decade or more away, the work is nothing short of exciting and something that all self-respecting sci-fi author will likely be forced to read.