February 12, 2014
Taking A Trip Inside Of A Cell
Who remembers the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage? If you answer “no,” do not worry. I am not surprised. It was not all that memorable. In the film, a scientist uncovers the secrets of miniaturization and is then injured, causing a clot to form in his brain, which leads to a team using his discovery to shrink themselves down inside of a submarine so they can be injected into his bloodstream so they can remove the clot and save his life. Strange premise, but a somewhat fun movie nonetheless. Parodied countless times, most memorable for me being Futurama season 3, episode 4 titled “Parasites Lost.” While the idea of shrinking is one still locked firmly in the realm of science fiction, the idea of being able to move about inside of the human body via probes is one that has transitioned into the world of scientific fact.
Until now, nanomotors – rocket-shaped metal particles that are able to move around inside of cells – have only been used/studied in non-living cells. Chemically powered nanomotors were first developed at Penn State University, but required toxic fuels to power and thus were unable to move about in biological hosts without harming them. Now, a team of chemists and engineers (also from Penn State) have created a new type of nanomotor that is able to be propelled via ultrasonic waves and steered magnetically, making them safe to use inside of the human body. What this allows for is a whole new look at just how cells operate. According to Tom Mallouk, Evan Pugh Professor of Materials Chemistry and Physics at Penn State, “This research is a vivid demonstration that it may be possible to use synthetic nanomotors to study cell biology in new ways. We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside. Nanomotors could perform intracellular surgery and deliver drugs noninvasively to living tissues.” Using HeLa cells for their experiments, the cells would ingest the nanomotors, allowing the tiny machines to move around inside of them. Normally, this has no effect on the cell itself, but when the ultrasonic wave is increased, the nanomotor starts moving around and interacting with the cell. They are able to homogenize the cell’s contents, acting like an egg beater, or they can ram themselves into the cell membranes to puncture them. In this way, they could be used to destroy cancer cells inside of the body, acting as an active preventative method. According to Mallouk, “One dream application of ours is Fantastic Voyage-style medicine, where nanomotors would cruise around inside the body, communicating with each other and performing various kinds of diagnoses and therapy. There are lots of applications for controlling particles on this small scale, and understanding how it works is what’s driving us.”
How strange is it to think about having tiny devices swimming about inside of you, propelled by ultrasonic waves and magnetism, seeking out and destroying harmful cells? It is just like something out of science fiction, but as our understanding of the human body and the properties of matter continue to grow, things like this become more and more easily accessible. Could this end up being the wonder cure for cancer? We will all just have to wait and see.
Until then, I think I am going to check out that Fantastic Voyage movie again, just for fun.
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