Pulse 172: Medical Nanotech with Semiconductors

6 October 2020
Giulio Prisco

Nanobots

Scientists led by Cornell University have created tiny micro-robots, invisible to the naked eye. They walk using four legs controlled by laser light, BBC News reports.

These are the first microscopic robots that incorporate semiconductor components. This allows them to be controlled and made to walk with standard electronic signals, notes a Cornell press release.

“These robots, roughly the size of paramecium, provide a template for building even more complex versions that utilize silicon-based intelligence, can be mass produced, and may someday travel through human tissue and blood.”

A research paper is published in Nature. It describes this advance towards mass-manufactured, silicon-based, functional micro-robots. Lead researchers Itai Cohen and Paul McEuen hope that eventually robots like these could be designed to hunt down and destroy cancer cells, as reported by BBC News.

This is one more step toward the fusion of electronics and the human body, covered in Pulse 166. The Cornell press release opens with a reference to Richard Feynman’s seminal lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” (1959). This lecture is considered as a key precursor to the field of nanotechnology, pioneered by Eric Drexler in the 1980s.

Indeed, the growing miniaturization of robots with integrated processors and actuators seems inexorably to point the way to in-body medical nanotechnology. Perhaps Drexler’s nanobots, swarming through the body and curing diseases (including aging and death) are not that far after all.

Genetic Discovery for Regeneration of Adult Skin

Scientists at Washington State University have identified a genetic factor that allows adult skin to repair itself like the skin of a newborn. The discovery is described in a research paper published in eLife. It has implications for wound treatment and preventing some of the aging process in skin.

The scientists identified a factor in the skin of baby mice controlling hair follicle formation. When it was activated in adult mice, their skin was able to heal wounds without scarring. The reformed skin even included fur and could make goose bumps.

A lot of work still needs to be done before this latest discovery in mice can be applied to human skin. But this is a foundational advance according to the scientists.

Molecular Studies Reveal that Aging Is Complex

Researchers at EPFL have measured the molecular footprint that aging leaves on various mouse and human tissues. A study is published in Cell Reports.

The study describes how the researchers used multiple techniques to measure the expression of every one of the thousands of mouse genes across three different tissues: liver, heart, and muscle. The data allowed the researchers to define an aging "footprint" and recover many of the known aging manifestations.

However, aging is a complex process. And different tissues behave differently. The researchers are persuaded that further studies will permit advancing toward allowing people to age better and disease-free.

Advanced Microscopy Reveals Cancer Vulnerability

Caltech researchers have developed a framework using a specialized type of microscopy. It enables probing of the metabolic processes inside cancer cells. A study is published in Nature Communications

The study reports that the researchers applied Raman spectroscopy and Raman scattering microscopy to system biology. This technology permits looking inside cancer cells with more detail than before. The sub-cellular information obtained permits studying how metabolism affects drugs (“pharmacometabolomics”).

While the primary purpose of the research was to do fundamental science, the researchers uncovered a few new metabolic susceptibilities in cancer cells.

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