Nanotechnology to Fight Cancer

Artist's rendering of a nanobot attacking a cancer cell.

Nanotechnology and nanoscience are terms that refer to the study of extremely small things in a variety of scientific fields including chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering. Nanoparticles are defined as having at least one dimension that measures less than 100 nanometers. How small is that? Well, a sheet of newspaper is 1,000 times thicker than that, so 100 nanometers is very small, indeed.

Research efforts focused on using DNA as a tiny molecular machine are an example of nanotechnology.


Nanobots are tiny machines or nanotechnology robots. Nanobots are also known as monoids, nanites, nanomachines, and nanomites. Nanobots are being researched and developed for all types of uses, including targeting cancer cells directly. Nanobots can be made from a variety of different compounds, but it's the DNA nanobots that have gained attention most recently.

How are Nanobots Built?

It turns out that DNA is not only the substance genetic coding, but it is also a pliable molecule that can be “bent” to make three-dimensional shapes. This is sometimes referred to as “DNA origami” whereby the product becomes a nanobot.

In this case, the shape might be thought of as a tiny clam shell or an opened briefcase. Imagine that strands of DNA known as aptamers are strung up in front, at the opening, guarding the payload.

These strands can detect a specific target or combination of targets, such as proteins that are associated with cancer. When the nanobots find the right combination, they deliver their payload--possibly a cancer-killing agent or toxin that spares normal cells.

Nanobots Tested in Cockroaches

According to an article by Charles Choi in Popular Mechanics, researchers have recently deployed DNA nanobots in living cockroaches.

They used those nanobots to release a structure that recognizes the insect's hemocytes, the cockroach’s equivalent of white blood cells. The DNA had to "decide" whether the target was a real target. Researchers call this DNA-based computing, and this is the first time it has been used in a living subject, albeit a cockroach.

Research into Nanobot Propulsion

According to Steve Dent from Engadget, researchers at the Israel Institute of Technology are working on a way to propel nanobots from the outside. They created something the width of a silk fiber but made of several links of polymer and magnetic nanowire. They simulated blood and introduced the nanodevice into this fluid, then applied an external oscillating magnetic field, which propelled the nanobot forward.

Bottom Line

Though this technology is exciting, it could be some time before a treatment derived from this technology becomes a real option for cancer patients. One reason the group did these tests in cockroaches first is that their bodily fluids aren’t as high as ours are in nucleases, enzymes that break apart DNA. Nonetheless, this type of work is an important first step, and may be helpful in motivating additional work that would move things closer to the ultimate goal.


Engadget. Swimming nanobots target cancer cells inside your body. Accessed September 2015.

Amir Y, Ben-Ishay E, Levner D, Ittah S, Abu-Horowitz A, Bachelet I. Universal computing by DNA origami robots in a living animal. Nat. Nanotechnology. 2014;9(5):353-357. Accessed January 2015. Accessed January 2015.

Popular Mechanics. Cockroaches, DNA Nanobots, and the Future of Cancer Treatment. Accessed January 2015.

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