Forward into the Future: Nanobots Attack Cancer Cells

Nanobot army attacks and kills cancer cells. This is the kind of nanotechnology application that has excited many of us since nanotechnology came onto the scene.  A team of scientists at the California Institute of Technology has created a small army of nanobots only 70 nanometers (70 billionths of a meter) in diameter that attach themselves to cancer cells and inject an RNA inhibitor that essentially starves the cells to death.  What I think we all want to know is, when can we expect to have new remedies like this available?

The economics “rule”. With this new ability of nanobots to attach to specific proteins and deliver a material come some amazing possibilities, but cost will be an issue until they can be made in large quantities.  This may require they either self-assemble or be assembled in a process similar to the way bio-reactors are used to mass produce pharmaceuticals.

The first nanobot products will face stiff competition. Genentech is famous for developing both bio-reactors and cancer treatment technologies that use specially designed proteins to attack cancer cells, and has successful products on the market that will be well established before nanotechnology can be turned into actual medical products.  Cal Tech will probably hold the rights to the new nanotechnology and license or sell it when its value to investors is high compared to their investment, but making a successful product from the concept could take years.

Medical nanotechnology promises capabilities far exceeding those of drugs. This new anti-cancer technology brings an unprecedented level of sophistication to the battle against cancer, and one which suggests future applications never before imagined.  The potential for developing more complex and sophisticated nanobots is far greater than what might be accomplished with drugs.  Nanobots can integrate semiconductor-based computing elements and wifi-like radio communications, for example, suggesting the ability to network them with other nanobots and remotely control them.

Essential basic research is likely to come from government and university labs. We can expect to see some amazing nanotechnology applications within our lifetimes, and I can’t wait, but they will require increased funding for basic research, something that privately-held organizations rarely support.  While corporations routinely pursue applications research, they have a much harder time justifying basic research because of the long payback periods and general uncertainties as to how the results might be commercialized, leaving both funding and running of such efforts mostly to governments and educational institutions.  This means it is up to us to demand increased basic research funding and support from our government representatives.  Please contact your legislators and let them know you want them to support basic research.

As always, I welcome your comments.  – Tim


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