Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Will nanobots perform surgery in the future?


That tiny implantable system allows human metabolism to be monitored, and it was developed by the Polytechnic school in Lausanne, Switzerland. The implant has five biosensors, which measure the density of various molecules.
That tiny implantable system allows human metabolism to be monitored, and it was developed by the Polytechnic school in Lausanne, Switzerland. The implant has five biosensors, which measure the density of various molecules.
© Amelie-Benoist/BSIP/Corbis

In the 1960s sci-fi flick "Fantastic Voyage," a submarine containing a surgical team was miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a patient so the surgeons could perform a delicate operation to save his life. Wouldn't it be great if doctors could shrink themselves and get inside you for real? Or what if they could send in swarms of microscopic medical robots to repair damaged organs and deliver anti-cancer medication directly to tumors?

This tiny dream team made of surgical nanobots is an idea that we've been hearing about for so long that you might be wondering why they're not already cleaning out your arteries. In 2000, an article in Popular Science predicted that scientists would soon be mass-producing health care robots smaller in diameter than the width of a human hair -- so tiny that they could travel through the bloodstream without being rejected by your immune system [source: Cray]. Seven years later, a CNN story predicted that nanobots would soon be traveling to parts of the body that conventional medicine couldn't reach, "precisely delivering drugs to areas such as the eyeball cavity or arteries in the heart" [source: Irvine].

But like a lot of notions, the development of surgical nanobots has turned out to be a more complex task and taken longer than science fiction writers and optimistic futurists envisioned.

Recently, there have been promising breakthroughs, as researchers have begun to fashion nanobots out of genetic material rather than plastic or metal. Israeli researchers, for example, demonstrated the ability to use strands of DNA to create a tiny machine inside the body of a cockroach. Those strands can function as simple biological computers, which scientists are able to program to solve simple math problems. The Israeli team has also been able to tie the strands together into tiny boxes that open or close depending upon what protein is present [source: Yirka]. And Columbia University researchers have been able to attach molecules of DNA to antibodies and then use them to seek out a specific set of human blood cells and attach fluorescent markers to them.

"This opens up the possibility of using such molecules to target, treat or kill specific cells without affecting similar healthy cells," the study's senior investigator, Dr. Milan Stojanovic, said. "In our experiment, we tagged the cells with a fluorescent marker; but we could replace that with a drug or with a toxin to kill the cell" [source: Columbia University].

The results were so promising that some scientists are predicting that as soon as 2020, surgical nanobots will advance to the point that they will be ready for human trials [source: Yirka]. We'll check back in with you in 2020.


More to Explore