As governments worldwide pour billions into programmes to exploit the potential of nanotechnology, Leeds aims to make its mark with its newly-established Interdisciplinary Institute in Bionanosciences.
Molecular-scale trains and submarines that will carry loads such tiny doses of drugs and virtual reality software to enable operators to control matter on the nanoscale are projects planned by the Institute.
Nanotechnology aims to exploit the possibilities for creating machines on a scale smaller than even existing microchip technology by modifying the properties of existing biological molecules to make them do useful work.
Biomaterials are excellent starting points for such developments because bio-molecules are easy to program by changing gene sequences. The advantages of working on this tiny scale are immense. A nano version of a micro-device would require at least a million times less material to make, with resultant savings in weight, waste and cost of production and power consumption.
Professor Peter Stockley, who has been appointed to a two-year research sabbatical to lead the development of bionanoscience at Leeds, said: “These projects aim to establish feasibility studies that will form the basis of a sustainable research programme. In the future we could imagine an engineered nano-submarine swimming around a patient’s bloodstream to the site of a tumour too small to be tackled by surgery.
“Once the diseased tissue has been located by molecular sensors on the submarine’s surface, nano-torpedoes will deliver a fatal dose of anti-cancer drugs without damage to the surrounding healthy tissue.”
Professor Stockley dismissed fears that the world could be overtaken by a ‘grey goo’ of nano-machines replicating themselves and running amok. “We are many decades away from such self-replicators. Most current research is still directed at learning how to manipulate and investigate matter at this very small scale,” he said.