Nanobots vs Cancer – A Moonshot Idea
Tom Spendlove posted on September 12, 2013 | | 4587 views

Shawn Douglas has big ideas to help fight cancer. His two roadblocks to a cure are that cancer drugs lack specificity and the cancer cells develop resistance to treatment over time.

His radical solution in this Solve for X talk is to develop a new class of drugs from nanoscale devices. Inspiration comes in part from the way that penicillin fights infection. Penicillin can eat the harmful bacteria in an infection without doing harm to the host body.

Cancer cells, however, are close in makeup to the healthy cells that they have replaced and harder to individually target. Douglas uses animations and a gruesome graphic of a melanoma patient to explain how cancer cells can develop resistance to medicine and return stronger than original levels.

To solve the specificity problem Douglas proposes a targeted delivery method that can differentiate between healthy cells and cancer cells. To solve the resistance problem he proposes combining different treatment methods to ensure all the different types of cancer cells are removed.

The solution to fit both sets of problems and constraints is nanoscale devices. In the lab Douglas and his team use a method codenamed DNA origami where hundreds of short DNA strands combine to create custom shapes with nanoscale precision.

The devices act as a shell that delivers payload atoms to the exact cell that is targeted. Top and bottom halves are held together with strands and when signaled can open up like a clamshell, delivering the drug.

Extensive testing has been done in the lab to obtain a proof-of-concept level of confidence. Goals for the future include much more testing on live subjects, a method of mass production, finding new applications for nanobot delivery, and lots of new scientists. Douglas ends the talk discussing his BioMod student design competition and reminding us that bringing up the next generation of nanoscale device engineers is his most important project.