Cancer-fighting nanobots
Nano-robots made out of bacteria and cancer-fighting chemicals wouldn't have the side effects associated with chemotherapy. Photo by Reuters
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South Korean scientists say it will soon be possible to treat cancer with nanorobots as a more efficient, less harmful alternative to chemotherapy – with the help of salmonella bacteria, of all things.

At this stage the only ones who stand to be cured are sick mice, but the scientists are hopeful human testing can start soon.

The story actually starts with the germs, which are normally associated with gastrointestinal disease. But these bugs are engineered to lose their deadly payload, as it were, and to locate tumors in the body instead.

Once the cancerous tissue is found, the bacteria are engineered to release cancer-fighting drugs.

"This is the world’s first nanorobot for active medical treatment,” stated the South Korean Ministry of Science.

How to the bacteria find the tumors? Like all "targeting" treatments to date, they are engineered to have receptors that biond biochemicals secreted by the diseased tissue. Normal, healthy cells do not secrete such chemicals.

The "bacteriobot has a sensing function to diagnose the cancer," explains Park, head of the Robot Research Initiative at Chonnam.

Why salmonella? For one thing, they're easy to grow in the lab. For another, these bacteria have a limb called a flagella, a sort of single leg that rotates madly and propels them forward, so they can reach the tumorous tissue in the body.

At this stage, the bacteriorobot can detect only solid cancers, such as breast or colorectal cancer.

But Park believes with time, the biomachines will be capable of detecting and treating other types as well. And the microscopic robots do not have the side effects associated with chemotherapy, such as nausea, hair loss and anemia.

Also, chemotherapy uses chemicals that as a rule, are supposed to stop cell proliferation. That is a worthy aim when targeting tumors, but the problem is that the medicines aren't specific – they affect other proliferating cells, such as skin, blood cells, and hair follicle cells – hence the common side effect of baldness.

"We have introduced a new paradigm in treating cancer, and I think the technology will further invigorate anti-cancer treatment," Park commented.

The new technology has already been patented in the U.S, Japan and Europe, but as said, has been confined to murine research so far. There's a way to go before it can be approved for use on humans.