Tiny robotic tool could detect, kill cancer cells

Source:Xinhua-Global Times Published: 2019/3/14 17:35:08

Nano-tech could be used in future for tumors resistant to conventional treatment

A surgical robot on display at an industry expo in Beijing in August 2018 Photo: VCG

Canadian scientists have developed a kind of magnetic "tweezers" that can, with extreme precision, place a nano-scale bead into a human cancer cell, pointing to a new option for diagnosing and treating cancer.

The study published on Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics described the design in which a magnetic iron nano-bot about 100 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair can be coaxed into any desired position within the cell.

The bead, about 700 nanometers in diameter, is placed on a microscope coverslip seeded with cancer cells and surrounded by six magnetic coils in different planes, and the cancer cell can swallow the bead into its membrane, said the study.

The researchers from the University of Toronto were able to control the bead's position using microscopy, using a computer-controlled algorithm to vary the electrical current through coils and shaping the magnetic field in three dimensions.

The researchers used their robotic system to study early-stage and later-stage bladder cancer cells. Previously, they had to extract the cell nuclei to examine it.

The researchers measured cell nuclei in intact cells instead of breaking apart the cell membrane, showing that the nucleus is not equally stiff in all directions.

"It's a bit like a football in shape. Mechanically, it's stiffer along one axis than the other," said Sun Yu, a professor of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto. "We wouldn't have known that without this new technique."

They were able to measure how much stiffer the nucleus got when prodded repeatedly, and thus find out which cell protein or proteins might play a role in controlling this response, which could work as a new method of detecting cancer in the early stages.

In later-stage cells, the stiffening response is not as strong as in the early stage, though both are seemingly similar, said the researchers.

The research team said there could be wider applications in the treatment of cancer.

"You could imagine bringing in whole swarms of these nano-bots, and using them to either starve a tumor by blocking the blood vessels into the tumor, or destroy it directly via mechanical ablation," Sun said. 

"This would offer a way to treat cancers that are resistant to chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy," said the University of Toronto.

The applications are still a long way from clinical use, but further trials are underway.

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