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A Glimpse Into the Future of Medicine: DNA robots to fight cancer and other diseases

Updated on August 17, 2015

Copyright 2012 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D.

Add DNA to the latest list of molecules joining nanotechnology as a potential disease- and cancer-fighting tool. DNA nanotechnology is being intensely looked at for its potential to deliver drugs and molecules to cells in the body.

Why? DNA is both biodegradable and biocompatible, making it a strong candidate for delivering molecules to be targeted areas or cells of the body.

So far, it’s been explored from a number of different design perspectives:

  • DNA robotic spiders that walk to the targeted area to deliver cargo
  • DNA tweezers that open and close to grab and release cargo
  • DNA clams, a hexagonal barrel with hinges at the bottom of the barrel that allows the clam to open and close to release therapeutic molecules

As with other nanoparticles, these little guys are around 35-50 nanometers in diameter and it is estimated that billions, if not trillions, of DNA nanobot copies would be required to do the job.


DNA Robots Used to Treat Cancer in a Dish

In a recent published scientific article, Shawn Douglas and colleagues at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University presented evidence that DNA nanorobots could obliterate lymphoma and leukemia cells in a Petri dish while still leaving healthy cells intact.

They were able to load the tiny robots with antibodies that could trigger a “kill” switch on the surface of leukemia cells. Upon delivery of the antibodies to the surface of the leukemia cells, the tumor cells were able to self-destruct. The antibodies were targeted to surface molecules found only on the leukemia cells. These molecules were not present on surrounding healthy cells so the nanobots left the healthy cells alone.

Although these DNA nanorobots have now been shown to work in vitro (outside the body, in tissue culture cells), they have yet to be redesigned to traverse the human body to target in vivo tumors.

Ultimately the hope is that these tiny devices will be modified to go the distance. Douglas and colleagues are looking towards the next step: testing in animal models. If such modifications are successful, we could one day see DNA robots going through clinical trials as a novel treatment for some types of cancer.

Nanorobots Proposed in 2006 to Treat Neruological Diseases by 2010 and Beyond

Additional Related Articles

Just click on the title to learn more...

Engineered Nanoparticles in Food

A review on how engineered nanoparticles in consumer products, especially food, are unregulated.

3 New Health and Environmental Risks Associated With Nanoparticles

Nanotechnology in the last decade has led to the use of nanoparticles in a number of manufactured products and foods. Originally thought to be harmless, new studies suggest that some nanoparticles pose negative health and environmental consequences.

The Nanotechnology and Nanoparticle Paradox

Nanotechnology has led to the creation of a number of products that have spawned many improvements in the industrial world.

In recent decades, proposed nanorobots (a.k.a. nanobots, nanoids, nanites, nanomachines or nanomites) have shown promise for improving the delivery of drugs and creating new medical treatments.

However, with the birth of nanotechnology and all its applications, some researchers and environmentalists do have concerns about their safety. These are uncharted waters with no set public policy or testing guidelines to determine safety.

Many argue that there has been very little regard to public safety and that there are potential environmental impacts with the use of nanoparticles. Most nanoparticles go to market and are put into a household products, personal care products, food packaging, and even drugs and supplements without testing for long-term affects.

As many researchers are starting to publish, there are some negative impacts both on the environment and on personal health.

Finding the right balance will prove to be difficult. The question that we, as a society, face is:

Will the benefits of nanotechnology outweigh the consequences?

This question and others like it remain to be answered and it may take decades for scientists to sort out.

DNA nanorobots could be an example where the positive benefits may outweigh a negative aspects of nanotechnology. Nanobots are also being proposed and researched with the hopes of addressing some neurological diseases (see video to the right).

Cancer Cells
Cancer Cells | Source

More advances in discovering anti-cancer agents

Scientists are discovering new microbial soil species that have anti-cancer and disease-fighting properties. This will prove to be an interesting new area of medical research! The number of soil microbes still waiting to be discovered and their potential in medical advancements may shock you.

Other Tiny Robots to Treat Cancer

Recently, researchers from the Singapore National University Hospital, inspired by eating crab and seafood one night, have already created a miniature crab-like robot that can remove early stomach cancer.

This mini-robot can pick up molecules as small as sand. The mini robot is mounted on an endoscope with a tiny camera attached that is then used to enter the stomach through the mouth. From there, surgeons can scope out the area, look for small tumors and remove them.

These little robots still need to be tested thoroughly in clinical trials to make sure that they are safe and can effectively treat stomach cancers at an early stage.

This work is a promising step forward towards non-invasive treatments and may prove to become mainstream before DNA nanotechnology is thoroughly worked out.

Additional References

For related medical research articles see:

Lund, K., et al. 2010. Molecular robots guided by prescriptive landscapes. Nature 465(7295): 206-10.

Gu et al. 2010. A proximity-based programmable DNA nanoscale assembly line. Nature 465(7295): 202–5.

Douglas et al. 2012. A logic-gated nanorobot for targeted transport of molecular payloads. Science 335: 831-4.


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    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @mperrottet - I agree, there will be advances in the next 20 or so years that will be mind boggling. 20 years ago, most of us as biologists thought there would be no way the human genome could be sequenced in a short amount of time. Now, with the changes and advance in technology, within the next 10-20 years, having your genome sequenced and using that information to help with preventative medicine may become routine.

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 5 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

      The promise of nanotechnology is amazing. Technology is increasing at such a fast rate that I think we will see advances never even dreamed of in 10-20 years. Interesting hub - voted up!

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @Alecia - I imagine that this will be continued to be researched more and more. If these turn out to be alternatives that have fewer side effects and but are just as effective (more better) than current treatment, they will take off!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      This is such a fascinating concept and it provides hope that cancer can be fought with more than just chemotherapy and radiation. Hopefully more research funds will be available for people to get the treatment they deserve. Great hub, thanks so much for sharing this information!

    • dwachira profile image

      [ Danson Wachira ] 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      Interesting and educative article, now that Nanotechnology has led to development of drugs and new treatment, i hope it is just a matter of time and scientists will find the long awaited once and for all Cancer cure. Voted up, useful and more.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @Jkenny - your concern is definitely shared by many, including myself! As a scientist, I am in awe of what "we" have learned even in the last 20 years and have invented as a result. But on the flip side, we often do not or cannot predict the long term outcome of our new technology and that is quite scary at times on a realistic level. What seems new and could solve big problems now could very well create a whole set of bigger problems just as big down the line.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 6 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Fascinating hub. I totally appreciate the good behind nanotechnology, but I can't help but feel concerned about how fast technology is speeding along. The past has shown that while technology certainly can improve our lives, it's often responsible for widespread environmental damage. I can't help but regard the future with just a little bit of fear.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @UnnamedHarald and @AliciaC - I agree that this is both hopeful and somewhat terrifying at the same time.

      "We" (society) are definitely heading into uncharted waters. How safe these new discoveries will be is going to be hard to assess on the short term.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is very interesting information, Kris. DNA robots could be a wonderful breakthrough in medicine, but their safety is a concern. It will be very interesting to see what the future holds!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Wow. Both terrifying and hopeful at the same time. Thanks for the article. Voted up and interesting.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 6 years ago from Indiana

      @prasetio30 - thanks for stopping by and contributing. I, too, hope that some of these new technologies will prove to be helpful.

      @missolive - the preliminary work does indeed sound promising. It may take at least three years before we see this is clinical trials.

      @teaches12345 - I agree, the video was awesome. It was nicely done. It's a little misleading at first because it was actually produced in 2006 but they mention 2010 at the start of the video so makes it sound as if it has already happened rather than a 2010 prediction for nanomedicine.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 6 years ago

      I am amazed at the wonders of technology in fighting cancer. I hope that this technology is perfected and accepted for combating diseases such as cancer. The video was awesome! voted up!

    • missolive profile image

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 6 years ago from Texas

      Fascinating hub Kris. I can't even begin to imagine how technology will continue to advance in the world of medicine. The fact that these creations have managed to kill leukemia and that nanorobots are removing stomach cancer cells brings great hope to future developments. Thank you for sharing your research as well as the resources.

      insightful and interesting hub

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

      This was very informative hub. This is one of the advances in medicine. I always care with health. I wish this invention bring much hope for cancer as one of deadly disease. My friend, thanks to introduce this with us. You have done a great job. Rated up and take care!



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