Within 48 hours, the tiny bots managed to choke off the blood supply to cancer cells, eventually leading to slowed or reversed tumour growth. That sheet was then loaded with an enzyme called thrombin - a chemical that can clot blood - and the sheet was then rolled into a tube, with the thrombin kept protected inside.
Arizona State University scientists, in collaboration with researchers from the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have successfully programmed nanorobots to shrink tumors by cutting off their blood supply. Tests in mice carrying breast, melanoma, ovarian, and lung tumors showed how the DNA nanorobots homed in on cancer-feeding blood vessels and induced the formation of clots, which effectively shut off the tumors' lifeline of oxygen and nutrients. The tube structure is held together by fastener strands that include DNA aptamer molecules created to nucleolin, a protein specifically expressed on tumor-associated endothelial cells.
Not only do these robots starve the tumors, but they safely shrink them too.
In a study published in the Nature journal, researchers said that they used DNA origami to construct the nanorobots, which were tasked with transporting payloads that will be released specifically to tumors. When the nanorobot would come in with the tumor, the tube automatically would open and deliver the thrombin.
Hao Yan, director of the ASU Biodesign Institute's Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, said: "We have developed the first fully autonomous, DNA robotic system for a very precise drug design and targeted cancer therapy".
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"The nanorobot proved to be safe and immunologically inert for use in normal mice and, also in Bama miniature pigs, showing no detectable changes in normal blood coagulation or cell morphology", said Yuliang Zhao, also a professor at NCNST and lead scientist of the global collaborative team.
The study uses nanotechnology to deliver thrombin, an enzyme that helps blood to clot. The cool-but-freaky technology could be a massive breakthrough in cancer treatment.
The research comes after a team of scientists, involving Durham University, a year ago created nanorobots able to drill into and destroy cancer cells. The median survival time more than doubled, extending from 20.5 to 45 days. According to Guangjun Nie, one of the researchers on the project, "Our research shows that DNA-based nanocarriers have been shown to be an effective and safe cancer therapy".
Independent academics said the animal test results could have promising implications for humans.
"I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology", said Yan.