In the future, nanobots will save lives. Scientists from Hong Kong have made a breakthrough in controlling swarms of minuscule robots to treat blood clots.
A team of scientists has designed and implemented a strategy using oscillating magnetic fields to "reconfigure paramagnetic nanoparticles into ribbon-like swarms."
The strategy was published in the journal Nature.
"The high reconfigurability is a key discovery," stated Professor Li Zhang of the Chinese University of Hong Kong who led the study. "The nanobot swarm can be operated in a controlled fashion with a high speed, which has never been reported before."
Nanobots are machines that measure around 1 nanometer or one-billionth of a meter. Through pattern formation, these robots can change shapes or perform tasks similar to how bacteria colonies or insect swarms appear in nature.
Creating and controlling a swarming robotic system with collective behavior has been a challenge. However, researchers were now able to command a microswarm of nanobots to perform a wide range of structural changes including shrinking, splitting, merging, and extending by applying magnetic fields.
The microswarm can also pass through channel networks and toward multiple targets with high accuracy and perform non-contact micromanipulation with fluids. These robots can perform these functions inside the systems of living human and animal bodies.
Future Of Medicine
Scientists hope that controlling swarms of nanobots can help reverse blood clots or assist with drug delivery to specific cells.
Unfortunately, the research on nanobots that will be used for medical purposes remains on paper. While there is a wide interest to use these machines to treat various illnesses, clinical trials are yet to be approved because of the existing strict regulations on human testing. However, Zhang and his team are making a huge progress.
"My medical doctor collaborators from the Hong Kong Prince of Wales Hospitals and I expect that we could translate the nanorobotics technology to clinical applications in five years," explained Zhang. "We are doing animal studies right now."
There are limitations to the use of nanobots for medical purposes. The lead researcher added that the robots cannot be sent to the heart where the speed of blood flow is high, which means that it can easily flush out the machines. He said that at this point, there is still much to learn about swarming robotic system and its many possible uses.
A previous study from researchers at Arizona State University and National Center for Nanoscience and Technology of the Chinese Academy of Science was able to inject tiny nanobots and deliver drugs to shrink tumors in mice.