These weird nanorobots could make chemotherapy treatment easier.



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“Chemotherapy is brutal. The goal is pretty much to kill everything in your body without killing you.”

That’s what Rashida Jones said in Oprah Magazine back in 2009 while discussing her mother’s cancer.

Jones at the 2010 Stand Up to Cancer event. Jones has been an outspoken advocate for supporting cancer treatment. Photo by Handout/Getty Images.

And it’s true. While chemotherapy has been one of our greatest weapons in fighting cancer, it can be merciless to the person who has to go through it. Side effects include hair loss, pain, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and stomach issues. It can even sometimes cause long-term damage to your heart, lungs, or other organs.

That’s why researchers have devoted a ton of time to trying to create better, more precise, less-like-dropping-a-bomb-into-your-veins treatments.

And researchers in Canada, led by professor Sylvain Martell of the Polytechnique Montréal Nanorobotics Laboratory, might have just created something amazing – a kind of remote-controlled anti-cancer nanorobot. They published their findings in a paper titled “Magneto-gerotactic Bacteria Deliver Drug-containing Nanoliposomes to Tumour Hypoxic Regions.”

Yeah, it’s a mouthful, but the science behind it is pretty cool and not actually that hard to understand. Here’s how it works:

Imagine your body’s blood vessels like a gigantic hamster maze.

Hamsters are big fans of similes. Photo from iStock.

I know, kind of a weird metaphor, but stick with me here. Now, there are over 60,000 miles of blood vessels in our body all stitched together, so this is a pretty big maze. And somewhere in there, connected to the system, is our target – the tumor. But how do we get to it?

Standard chemotherapy is kind of like taking a big old bottle of chemicals and trying to just flood everything.

If the tube maze is full up to the top with chemicals, that tumor’s definitely going to get treated, but so will, you know, everything else connected to that maze.

So as most chemo is trying to stop cancer’s runaway growth, there tends to be a good amount of noncancer collateral damage to other growing cells (that’s why chemo patients tend to lose their hair).

That’s the (very simplified) standard chemo scenario.

This new technique, however, is like dropping the hamster into that maze, then leading it directly to the tumor with a carrot.

Only in this case, the hamster is actually tiny ocean-going bacteria called magnetococcus. Magnetococcus is special because it has a kind of built-in compass that it uses to orient itself in the big, wide ocean. If it ever gets lost, it can use that compass to wiggle its way back home.

What the researchers figured out they can do is take some of those bacteria, load them up with special, cancer-fighting chemicals, then inject them into the patient. Then, by using computer-controlled magnets outside the patient’s body, they can tweak all those mini-compasses and lead the cancer-fighting bacteria straight to the tumor, like a hamster following its nose.

The scientists did not say if the bacteria got similarly adorable treats afterwards. Photo from iStock.

It’s worth noting that a few other places have experimented with other kinds of nano-delivery schemes, but they weren’t as precise partly because they didn’t use things that could move on their own like these bacteria can.

There’s some other cool things about this particular technique as well, like how the bacteria can naturally seek out hard-to-reach areas of the tumor that don’t get a lot of oxygen and how they might be able to penetrate the brain’s security-system-esque blood-brain barrier.

It’s still in testing, but if this works, it could make chemotherapy far less brutal.

The nanorobotics lab. Photo by Polytechnique Montréal.

So far they’ve tested it in mice, and the researchers have obtained funding to try to put together a fully-equipped, human-sized setup. The government of Quebec even kicked in $1.85 million.

Chemotherapy is a life-saving invention, and it’d be hard for me to overstate how much it’s changed cancer treatment. But anyone who’s taken it or anyone who’s watched a loved one go through it can tell you it’s rough. Thanks to researchers like these, treating cancer one day might be a heck of a lot easier.

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