Editorial Feature

What Are Nanobots and What Do They Do?

This article was updated May 2023.

Nanotechnology has exploded in recent years establishing new and exciting applications. One of those applications is the development of nanoscale robots called nanobots.

Nanobots are currently disrupting the biomedicine sector, with developments in cancer diagnosis and drug delivery. Image Credit: Corona Borealis Studio/Shutterstock.com

Nanoparticles, measuring 1-100 nanometers, are unique compared to their bulk material counterpart. Their small scale gifts them properties that can be leveraged into exciting new technologies.

Nanotechnology continues to gain traction, with estimations that it will reach a global net worth of over $33.63 billion by 2030.

While many nanotechnology projects are still in the research and development phase, significant advancements are being made as scientists discover more about how nanoparticles can be used, including nanobots.

Nanobots, the nanoscale robots, are currently disrupting the field of biomedicine, with particular advancements occurring in cancer diagnosis and drug delivery. The global market value of nanobots stood at an impressive $5.3 billion in 2021, and, like the nanotechnology industry as a whole, is expected to show rapid growth over the next decade.

Nanobot Examples: Xenobots

Recent research has helped to establish xenobots, nanorobots that are less than 1 mm in length and constructed of 500-1000 living cells. They have been created in a variety of basic shapes, including some with legs. Studies have shown they can effectively move linearly or circularly, join with other xenobots to act collectively, move tiny objects, and live for around 10 days.

Scientists believe this kind of nanorobot could be developed to positively impact human, animal, and environmental health. However, their status as "programmable living robots” made from living, organic tissue raises ethical concerns.

At the end of 2021, the team of scientists at the University of Vermont, Tufts University, and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, that built the first xenobots expanded on this by creating the first xenobots with the ability to reproduce.

What is exciting is that the nanobots replicated by means of an entirely new form of biological reproduction. The team is working on gaining a deeper understanding of the mechanism displayed by this type of nanobot. However, it is expected to be leveraged in regenerative medicine to help treat cancer, traumatic brain injury, birth defects, and more.

While there is some uncertainty about the future of xenobots due to ethics, scientists working in this field are excited about their potential applications in cleaning up microplastics from the ocean, scavenging toxins and radioactive materials from dangerous places, the more efficient and effective targeted delivery of drugs, and the repair of cells and tissues.

Nanobots in Cancer Diagnosis

Early diagnosis is a key strategy in the fight against cancer. However, due to the nature of cancer, current diagnostic techniques have their limitations. For example, recent years have seen techniques that measure various biomarkers as a method of early diagnosis, though these techniques are limited due to the new concentrations of such biomarkers in body fluids.

Nanotechnology offers a route to highly sensitive and specific early diagnostics for cancer. Scientists have worked on developing a nanobot that can precisely measure key cancer biomarkers at low concentration levels, enabling the early detection of multiple types of cancer and overcoming the limitations of currently available methods.

New research has developed a folding-DNA nanobot capable of accurately detecting and imaging tumor-related biomarkers within living cells. This nanorobot is constructed of two nanoparticles linked via a DNA aptamer that serves as a biorecognition tool. While in its early stages of development, the novel nanobot has promise in applications of early cancer detection.

Another research team at the Maharashtra Institute of Medical Education and Research in Pune, India, has developed magnetic nanobots to detect cancer cells circulating in the blood. The innovation may help to establish an effective, low-cost method of early diagnosis.

Finally, scientists in Switzerland have recently developed a nanorobot that can navigate through blood vessels to deliver cancer therapeutics straight to the disease site. While the innovation is in its early stages, the team has demonstrated how the nanobot can be directed with ultrasound, which will be beneficial, particularly in cancers that are in difficult-to-treat locations, such as glioblastomas.

Nanobots in Precision Medicine

Scientists are exploring the efficacy of DNA nanobots in destroying cancer cells. Scientists have successfully programmed strands of DNA to move through the blood to deliver blood-clotting drugs to the site of the tumor, cutting off their blood supply and preventing growth.

Many recent studies have highlighted the potential future use of nanobots in drug delivery. The current results are promising, suggesting that nanobots could soon be used in humans to deliver drugs with increased levels of efficacy and accuracy. This more efficient delivery may also help reduce the harmful side effects of current therapeutics.

A research team recently conducted in vitro experiments with nanobots, visualizing their movements using optical microscopy and Positron Emission Tomography (PET).

After learning how the nanoparticles were capable of migrating, the team tested the nanobots in a murine model, injecting the nanobots intravenously into mice. They coated the nanobots with urease, an enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of urea, and found that the nanobots swam instantly to the bladder, resulting in induced fluid flows. The data was evidence of the collective movements of nanobots that resemble those in nature.

The researchers described the collective movement of nanobots and “Nanobot swarms” and indicated that they could be particularly useful in viscous media, helping to deliver drugs with greater levels of precision.

It is theorized that nanobots could be used to deliver drugs to the eye, gastrointestinal tract, and joints. Scientists foresee that nanobots could be developed so that they are tailored to deliver drugs to specific parts of the body by adapting the nanobot to the fuel that exists in the environment where they are intended to deliver the therapeutics, (e.g. in the case of urease to direct them to the liver).

Can Nanobots Transform Daily Hygiene Routines?

In the near future, mundane but essential tasks such as brushing one’s teeth may become automated with the help of nanobots. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have a shapeshifting robotic microswarm with the potential to replace brushing, flossing, and rinsing.

The innovation is based on self-assembling iron nanoparticles that adapt to the shape of the teeth and gums in the presence of a magnetic field. Nanoparticles are then used to generate free radicals that eliminate pathogens. Studies have shown that the technology is at least as effective as traditional brushing and flossing.

Creating a ‘Global Superbrain’

A final interesting development in nanobot research is using nanotechnology to establish a ‘global superbrain’ where human thought, theoretically, could be transferred to an artificial interface, establishing a human ‘brain-cloud interface’.

Scientists theorize that nanobots may be used in the future to wirelessly transmit information stored in the brain to a cloud-based supercomputer network, allowing real-time data extraction and brain-state monitoring. However, before this application of nanotechnology can become a reality, it must undergo a significant phase of research and design and overcome the technology's ethical and moral implications.

Continue reading: How Are Nanobots Powered?

References and Further Reading

Nanorobots could target cancers and clear blood clots [online]. European Commission. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/research-and-innovation/en/horizon-magazine/nanorobots-could-target-cancers-and-clear-blood-clots 

Nanobots/Nanorobots Market Worth 8,685.7 Million By 2025 at 11.73% CAGR. Global Newswire. Available at: https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/02/23/2180785/0/en/Nanobots-Nanorobots-Market-Worth-8-685-7-Million-By-2025-at-11-73-CAGR-Investment-in-R-D-of-Nanorobotics-to-Influence-Growth-of-Global-Market-Says-Market-Research-Future-MRFR.html

Observed in vivo the collective movement of nanorobots. EurekAlert!. Available at: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/ef-oiv031521.php

Pedrero, M., Gamella, M. and Serafín, V. (2022) Nanomachines and Nanorobotics: Improving cancer diagnosis and therapy,” The Detection of Biomarkers, pp. 503–543. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-822859-3.00015-8.

Shapeshifting microrobots can brush and floss teeth [online]. Penn Today. Available at: https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/penn-dental-engineering-shapeshifting-microrobots-can-brush-and-floss-teeth

Team builds first living robots—that can reproduce [online]. Wyss Institute. Available at: https://wyss.harvard.edu/news/team-builds-first-living-robots-that-can-reproduce/ 

Wavhale, R.D. et al. (2021) Water-powered self-propelled magnetic nanobot for rapid and highly efficient capture of circulating tumor cells,” Communications Chemistry, 4(1). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s42004-021-00598-9.

Zhang, Y., Li, M., Gao, X., Chen, Y. and Liu, T., 2019. Nanotechnology in cancer diagnosis: progress, challenges and opportunities. Journal of Hematology & Oncology, 12(1). https://jhoonline.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13045-019-0833-3

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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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