Tiny artificial “nanomotors” have been placed inside live human cells for the first time and remotely controlled by scientists.
The devices, small enough to be ingested by cells, are propelled by ultrasonic waves and steered magnetically.
“One dream application of ours is Fantastic Voyage-style medicine, where nanomotors would cruise around inside the body, communicating with each other and performing various kinds of diagnoses and therapy,” said lead scientist Professor Tom Mallouk from Pennsylvania State University in the US.
“There are lots of applications for controlling particles on this small scale, and understanding how it works is what’s driving us.”
In the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, a manned submersible vehicle is reduced in size until it is small enough to sail through blood vessels.
The study used “HeLa” cells, a culture line of living human cervical cancer cells that is often used in research.
The cells absorbed the nanomotors – made from a combination of gold and the chemical element ruthenium – which were then able to move around within the cell tissue, powered by ultrasound.
When the power was increased they bumped into organelles, cell structures that perform specific functions.
At even greater power, they actually punctured cell membranes – raising the prospect of using the devices as a destructive weapon against cancer.
“As these nanomotors move around and bump into structures inside the cells, the live cells show internal mechanical responses that no one has seen before,” said Prof Mallouk.
“This research is a vivid demonstration that it may be possible to use synthetic nanomotors to study cell biology in new ways.
“We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside. Nanomotors could perform intracellular surgery and deliver drugs non-invasively to living tissues.”
The findings appear in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.