Space & Innovation

Corkscrew Nanobots Drill Though Blocked Arteries

The microswimmers, inspired by Lyme's Disease viruses, are biodegradable and won't trigger an immune response in the body. Continue reading →

Traditional methods of treating blocked arteries involve working around blockages with stents or expanding the arteries with inflatable probes. An ambitious multinational research project is working on a third approach: Drilling through blocked arteries with corkscrew-shaped nanobots.

Researchers at Drexel University announced today that they will be joining a partnership of 11 institutions worldwide in developing the procedure, which they hope will be deployed in clinical settings within the next four years.

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It works like this: A string of nanoscale iron oxide beads is delivered into the patient's bloodstream via a catheter. The beads, linked together by chemical bonds and magnetic force, function like tiny articulated swimmers. Triggered by an external magnetic field, each individual bead's rotation causes the string to twist like a corkscrew, propelling it through the blood.

By manipulating the external magnetic field, surgeons can actually steer the beads directly into blockages, where the corkscrew action then loosens arterial plaque. The process is based on the bacterium that causes Lyme's Disease, which uses its spiral shape to move around and damage tissue.

MinJun Kim – director of Drexel's Biological Actuation, Sensing & Transport Laboratory (BASTLab) – said that his team's bio-inspired "microswimmers" are biodegradable and won't trigger an immune response in the body. Size and surface properties can be adjusted to deal with various types of arterial occlusion. Once flow is restored in the artery, the microswimmer chains can be dispersed or used to deliver anti-coagulant medication directly to the effected area, to prevent future blockage.

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"Current treatments for chronic total occlusion are only about 60 percent successful," Kim said in press materials accompanying the announcement. "We believe that the method we are developing could be as high as 80-90 percent successful and possibly shorten recovery time."

The Drexel team is the first U.S. representative to join the international initiative, led by the government-funded Korea Evaluation Institute of Industrial Technologies (KEIT), in South Korea.

Sept. 27, 2011 --

In the popular "Deus Ex" video game series, nanotechnology can turn an average government agent into a bionic superman. In fact, nanotech augmentations in the human body aren't just fun and games. Real-life applications will most likely become reality a lot sooner than you think. In 2007, the world's first online inventory of nanotech products, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, found that nearly 500 products, including food, clothing and cosmetics, employed nanotechnology. In this slide show, explore how nanotech can make you stronger, tap into your brain and more.

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If you're too busy to make it to the gym, nanotechnology could be a way to get fit without having to spend hours toiling away on machines. In fact, technology can take you a lot further than any free-weight or cardio regimen. In 2006, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas reported in the journal Science that they had created alcohol- and hydrogen-fueled artificial muscles 100 times stronger and capable of 100 times more work than natural muscles. Functioning as both muscles and fuel cells, the technology has a range of applications from artificial limbs to autonomous robots.

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If nanotechnology can make you stronger, could it also make you smarter? Scientists aren't quite there yet, but nanotechnology applied to brain implants could treat a range of conditions from deafness to blindness to Parkinson's disease and more, according to biomedical engineers from the University of Michigan. Nanotechnology could also be used to tap into the mind, and read and write information directly into the brain. In an unusual twist, the research was undertaken by telecommunications engineers at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.

Contact lenses with visual displays may seem like the kind of technology you only see in a movie. But researchers at the University of Washington have started laying the groundwork by building a contact lens with internal circuitry. Using wires made of metal only a few nanometers thick, the technology is placed in a contact lens rather than an implant, making use of the bionic eye much easier. In this photo, the contact lens has been affixed to a rabbit. The researchers believe they would quickly be able to introduce a visual display, but it wouldn't be more than a few pixels in the near future.

Tired of having to find an electrical outlet or a USB cable every time you need to charge your cell phone? With nanotechnology, you can become a walking battery. Using nanowires to recover wasted heat energy from the body, which is then converted into electrical power, researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley have developed an entirely means of charging personal electronics. The same technology could be used to convert heat from other sources into electrical energy. As reported in the journal Nature, approximately 15 trillion watts of heat energy produced by engine and steam- and gas-powered turbines is lost to the environment.

Recovering from injuries to skin and muscle tissue can take weeks. Trauma to the brain or central nervous system can be irreversible. But with nanomedicine, a nanoparticle-infused hydrogel could heal brain and bone injuries by creating new blood vessels and encouraging stem cells to replace dead tissue. Developed by scientists from Clemson University, the gel still needs several more years of animal testing before human trials can begin. Injuries involving nerve damage or the spinal cord are among the most difficult to treat. But nanotechnology could open the door to rebuilding damaged nerve cells. Although regenerating nerve cells is the ultimate goal, researchers have so far been able to develop the scaffolding necessary to rebuild nerves following damage. The technique, a nanotechnology-infused stem cell treatment developed by David Nisbet of Monash University, could also aid in the treatment of Parkinson's disease.

Besides treating immediate injury, researchers are also exploring uses of nanotechnology to fight the effects of aging and to promote longer life. By using a breakthrough nanogel to stimulate stem cells, Northwestern University scientists found that they can regenerate lost cartilage in joints. As adults age, they start to lose their cartilege, a painful condition for which there is little effective treatment. A separate study undertaken by researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) found that using an industrial nanomaterial, they can triple or even quadruple the lives of brain cells. This could lead people "live longer and with fewer age-related health problems," according to a UCF press release about the study.

With more than an estimated 1.5 million new cancer patients this year alone, it's no surprise that one of the more promising applications of nanotechnology is in the detection, monitoring and treatment of various forms of cancer. From targeted drug delivery to direct attacks of "nanoworms" on tumor growths, researchers working within the field of nanomedicine are using the technology to attack cancer cells with unprecedented precision.

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