Releasing a microscopic army to tackle colorectal cancer tumours: science has joined science fiction and you may hear a lot about it.
Come in the American film The Fantastic JourneyA Quebec team has just injected an army of nanorobotic agents equipped with anti-cancer molecules into the blood vessels of diseased mice, where a miniature vehicle circulates in the bloodstream to transport doctors reduced to the size of microbes in the human body.
This progress is the subject of a recent post in the review Nature Nanotechnology. "Our technology is promising with a success rate of 55 % of affected tumours, and in addition, we accurately target diseased tumours, not healthy tissue. "notes Sylvain Martel, Director of the NanoRobotics Laboratory of the École Polytechnique de Montréal.
The tiny cancer fighters are actually 100 million bacteria equipped with molecular bags (liposomes) containing a drug to attack the tumour from the inside. They move with their flagellum and a guidance system that causes them to search for oxygen-poor (hypoxic) areas and thus target areas of resistance in the cancerous tumour in order to release the drug through chemical biodegradation.
At the crossroads of biology, engineering and nanorobotics, this technology still needs to be tested on other types of tumours, but also on larger animals - and therefore on humans - which the new robotic medical infrastructure will allow.
Equipped with an MRI clinical platform, a magnetotaxis station - a cockpit designed to guide bacteria by magnetism -, a bacteria nursery and other robotic equipment, this medical nanorobotics operating station will operate almost without human assistance. «Everything will be automated and transfers will be very fast; this is the future of medicine. "says the Canada Research Chair in Medical Nanorobotics.
Bacteria to the rescue
These particular bacteria come from an aquatic strain found in wetlands in the U.S. state of Rhode Island. These non-pathogenic bacteria are only 1 to 2 micrometers long, have a short lifespan - 30 minutes - and do not reproduce in the human body.
These future medical assistants move around thanks to the Earth's magnetic fields. This allows researchers to control them in the bloodstreams where they are introduced. « We guide them to their destination by artificially changing the magnetic fields to the tumor... ", explains Prof. Martel.
Half a century after Richard Fleischer's film, researchers are even aiming to make these bacteria travel into the brain - by opening the blood-brain barrier - to reach the tumours that have lodged there. It is hoped that the journey will be less eventful than in the fictional scenario.