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CAPE TOWN – In the next decade or two, the blood of people will very likely be full of tiny nanobots that will assist in preventing them from falling ill. When injected into our bodies, the nanobots will protect the physiological system on a molecular level to ensure a healthy and long life. 

Is this science fiction? 

No, not at all. The future is much closer than we may think.

In the nanomedicine age different kinds of nanobots will increasingly be used as very accurate drug-delivery systems, cancer treatment tools or miniscule surgeons.

Microbivores, or artificial white blood cells, are essentially nanorobotic phagocytes (cells that remove unwanted substances and pathogens). As with natural phagocytes, microbivores would devour, digest, and discharge any viruses, bacteria or fungi that they discover.

Since microbivores travel 1 000 times faster and are 80 times more efficient at destroying bacteria than white blood cells, bacterial infections could be eliminated from a patient in a matter of minutes as opposed to days required by antibiotics.

At the University of California San Diego researchers have developed tiny nanorobots that can remove harmful substances from blood like bacteria and their toxins.

Nanobots could thus significantly reduce infection risks. Researchers reported that after five minutes of treatment, blood samples already contaminated with the well-known antibiotic resistant MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) bacteria, had 66 percent fewer bacteria than the untreated samples. This potentially implies a future in which hospital-acquired infections would no longer be an issue.

Nanobots are also particularly effective in medicine delivery. For instance, scientists were able to deliver a strong and targeted dose of antibiotics to treat ulcers in a rat.

In a study published in the August 30, 2017 edition of the journal Nature, researchers found that nanobots that drilled through cellular bilayers into cancerous areas could kill cancer cells in one minute.

One of the most imaginative experiments at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University found that DNA-based nanorobots could be injected into live cockroaches to perform certain functions upon command. Those nanorobots are also known as origami robots, because they can unfold and deliver drugs to targeted cancer cells without collateral damage to healthy cells or the severe side-effects of traditional chemotherapy.

At the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England, researchers have developed a new nanobot-based cancer therapy to deliver a combination of treatments directly to cancer cells. The new therapy, which has been proved to make prostate and breast cancer tumours more sensitive to chemotherapy, is close to entering clinical trials.

A research team from Wayne State University, in Michigan, has developed a nanobot that works in combination with chemo­therapeutic drugs that may reverse drug-resistance in renal cell carcinoma by releasing the payload selectively to the tissue and core of the tumour resulting in its inhibition.

Successful trials with mice found their life expectancy more than doubled.

The potential for delivering of medicine via nanobots is enormous. It could be used to treat a variety of illnesses, like dispensing albuterol when they sense the airways are constricted due to asthma; distributing insulin when the blood-sugar levels of diabetics are too high; opening of narrowed arteries due to a build-up of fatty deposits; and delivering dopamine directly to the brainstem for treating Parkinson’s disease.

The nanobots could also deliver a micro-dose of a drug to the brain to address mental health problems.

Clottocyte nanorobots (or artificial blood platelets) could reduce clotting time to 1 second instead of the normal 4 minutes to 5 minutes. When the nanobots discover a wound, they unfold a fibre mesh to form a clot that halts bleeding after serious physical injury.

A single injection of clottocytes could provide a clotting function that is 10 000 times more effective than natural platelets. When the nanobots were injected into rats it halved the bleeding. Respirocyte nanobots (artificial mechanical red-blood cells) could carry 240 times more oxygen to body tissues than natural red-blood cells. They also contain sensors to measure the concentration of oxygen in the bloodstream. The medical value of this research is immense for people with anaemia (a shortage of healthy red-blood cells). However, respirocytes may bring challenges to athletic authorities that have to screen “super athletes“.

University of Cambridge researchers have developed a nanobot capable of a force per unit-weight of nearly 100 times more than any motor or muscle.

The nanobot, aptly called ANT, is able to move extremely fast through body fluids and can construct three-dimensional structures at an amazing pace. The researchers plan to use these nanobots in future to construct biological microfluidic pumps and valves.

But it is the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in nanotechnology that will really enable a shift from reactive to preventative medicine.

According to researcher Anna Kozlova, the learning ability of AI nanobots could lead to an adaptive immune system, as opposed to the reactive human immune system and significantly improve the human body’s response to diseases such as HIV, cancer, and age-related degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s.

Nanarobotics is still in its infancy, but advancements in the field have been encouraging and may lead to cures for many diseases.

Professor Louis Fourie is the deputy vice-chancellor: knowledge & information technology – Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.