In medical technology, there is no bigger target than being able to shrink or eliminate cancerous tumors. In 2018, it’s estimated that 609,640 people will die from various forms of cancer. And, as patients continue to struggle with treatments and the associated complications that come with this disease, the push for better cancer treatments has never been more important.
Which is why the recent announcement that ASU scientists have successfully programmed nanorobots to shrink tumors comes as amazing news. In a process that involves cutting off the blood supply to a tumor, Arizona State University scientists and researchers from the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences programmed nanorobots to cut off the blood supply to dangerous tumors.
Let’s take a closer look.
Nanomedicine and Cancer Treatment
A major advancement in nanomedicine, this technique utilizes fully autonomous DNA robotic systems. This allows for increasingly precise and targeted cancer therapy and, moreover, is a strategy that works across many different types of cancer.
This comes down to one common building block among all tumors: their blood vessels. All solid tumor-feeding blood vessels function in the same way, from breast and ovarian cancers to melanomas and lung cancer. And it’s because these all work in the same way that researchers have been able to consistently cut off their blood supply and shrink these offending tumors.
Until their most recent development, scientists had one mountainous challenge to overcome. To design nanorobots that could actively seek out and destroy a cancerous tumor. This was a challenge in and of itself. It also carried the added hurdle of creating nanorobots that wouldn’t harm the surrounding healthy cells.
In order to overcome this problem, the NCNST researchers would have to rethink their approach. The solution came in a seemingly simple form: selectively seeking and starving out the tumor itself.
Five years ago, the team set out to find ways to cut off blood supplies to tumors in cancer sufferers. One of the ways in which they achieved this at the time was by inducing coagulation in solid tumors, with the help of DNA-based nanocarriers, essentially clogging up those passageways.
Since then, developers have upgraded the nanomedicine design to a fully programmable robotic system. This means the system itself can do its work on its own, with no outside prompting. Nanorobots can transport molecular payloads according to their programming, causing tumor blood-supply blockages that lead to tissue death.
Nanorobots use flat, rectangular DNA sheets, measuring in at 90 nanometers by 60 nanometers. Thrombin, a blood-clotting enzyme, attaches to the surface and blocks blood flow by forming a clot within the vessels.
This requires an average of four thrombin molecules attached to the flat DNA’s scaffold. Flat DNA sheets fold in on themselves, creating hollow tubing. These are then injected into the subject (a mouse) and allowed to travel through the bloodstream directly to the tumors themselves. In order for them to attack only the cancer cells, each nanorobot carries a special payload known as a DNA aptamer which targets a protein found only on tumor endothelial cells. These proteins do not exist on the surface of healthy cells and are a perfect target for this treatment.
Once the nanorobot is bound to the tumor blood vessel’s surface, it is programmed to deliver its drug cargo to the tumor, exposing the thrombin so the nanorobots can get to work. These nanorobots congregating in huge numbers to surround the tumor within the space of mere hours. These robots are safe while being completely effective at shrinking cancerous tumors. There was no evidence of nanorobots spreading any risk of a stroke by traveling into the brain.
In other words, it’s a safe, powerful option with a lot of great potential. We’re looking forward to seeing where this goes!
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