Swimming microrobots could revolutionize lung cancer treatment

Researchers have developed microscopic robots, known as microrobots, capable of navigating through the lungs to deliver cancer-fighting drug

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have made a groundbreaking advancement in cancer treatment. They have developed microscopic robots, known as microrobots, capable of navigating through the lungs to deliver cancer-fighting drugs directly to tumors. This innovative method, which combines biology and nanotechnology, has shown significant promise in preclinical studies using mice. The findings were published in Science Advances.

These microrobots are the result of a collaborative effort between the labs of Joseph Wang and Liangfang Zhang, professors at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. They have ingeniously harnessed green algae cells to serve as tiny, self-propelled vehicles.

To transform these algae into drug carriers, researchers attached drug-filled nanoparticles to their surfaces. This clever integration allows the microrobots to swim effectively within the lungs, targeting and delivering medication directly to metastatic tumors.

Each nanoparticle is constructed from biodegradable polymer spheres, which are loaded with the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin and coated with red blood cell membranes. This red blood cell coating acts as a disguise, helping the nanoparticles evade the immune system and stay in the lungs long enough to attack the tumors. “It acts as a camouflage,” explained Zhengxing Li, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student and co-first author of the study. “This coating makes the nanoparticle look like a red blood cell from the body, so it will not trigger an immune response.”

The materials used in these nanoparticles are both biocompatible and safe. The green algae, known as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, is already recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This makes the microrobot formulation a promising candidate for further development in cancer treatment.

The concept of microrobots is not entirely new for the Wang and Zhang labs. Previously, they successfully used similar microrobots to treat severe pneumonia in mice. These earlier experiments marked the first time microrobots were tested safely in the lungs of living animals. “Those were the first microrobots to be safely tested in the lungs of live animals,” said Wang.


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In their latest study, the team adapted the microrobot technology to target cancer cells in the lungs. They modified the nanoparticles to carry doxorubicin and adjusted the membrane coatings to optimize the treatment for cancer.

“We demonstrate that this is a platform technology that can actively and efficiently deliver therapeutics throughout the entire lung tissue to combat different types of deadly diseases in the lungs,” noted Zhang.

Treatment Results and Future Prospects

To test their new microrobots, researchers treated mice with melanoma that had spread to the lungs. The microrobots were administered via a small tube inserted into the windpipe, allowing them to directly reach the lung tissue. The results were remarkable. Mice treated with microrobots had a median survival time of 37 days, compared to 27 days for untreated mice or those given either the drug alone or drug-loaded nanoparticles without the algae.

“The active swimming motion of the microrobots significantly improved distribution of the drug to the deep lung tissue, while prolonging retention time,” said Li. “This enhanced distribution and prolonged retention time allowed us to reduce the required drug dosage, potentially reducing side effects while maintaining high survival efficacy.”

With these promising preclinical results, the researchers are now focusing on advancing their work. They aim to conduct trials in larger animals and, eventually, in humans. Their goal is to establish microrobots as a viable and effective treatment for metastatic cancer in the lungs.

The development of these microrobots showcases the powerful potential of combining biological organisms with cutting-edge nanotechnology. By leveraging the natural swimming ability of algae and the sophisticated design of nanoparticles, the researchers have created a novel and effective method for delivering cancer treatments. This approach could revolutionize the way we treat not only metastatic cancer but also other lung diseases.

As the researchers push forward, their work continues to highlight the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in addressing complex medical challenges. The journey from the lab to clinical application is long, but the potential benefits for patients are immense. The successful integration of these tiny robots into cancer treatment could one day provide a lifeline to those battling metastatic lung cancer.

For now, the team at UC San Diego is committed to refining their microrobots and moving closer to making this innovative treatment a reality for cancer patients around the world.

For more science news stories check out our New Innovations section at The Brighter Side of News.


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Joshua Shavit
Joshua ShavitScience and Good News Writer
Joshua Shavit is a bright and enthusiastic 17-year-old student with a passion for sharing positive stories that uplift and inspire. With a flair for writing and a deep appreciation for the beauty of human kindness, Joshua has embarked on a journey to spotlight the good news that happens around the world daily. His youthful perspective and genuine interest in spreading positivity make him a promising writer and co-founder at The Brighter Side of News.