Send In the Nanites

By Jon Sung | Stardate 68861.9 | Earthdate 01.01.1970

Who here remembers that time when Wesley Crusher accidentally let a school science experiment get a teensy bit out of control and almost destroyed the Enterprise? There were some problems with an astrophysicist, a neutron star getting ready to explode, and the Enterprise computer breaking down — and it turned out a rogue colony of nanites with emergent intelligence were to blame (I can only imagine what Wesley’s final grade ended up being).

But what were Wesley’s nanites supposed to be for in the first place? Yup, you guessed it — medicine. The basic idea is simple: if your body’s cells aren’t healthy, you aren’t healthy. Twenty-first century medicine does the best it can, but it has its limits; our tools are too big and clumsy to be able to fix individual cells, so we bathe our tissues in drugs, hoping to clear out infectious organisms and let our body’s natural healing mechanisms do their thing. But what if we had helpers — little agents who could fix our cells from the inside? Now we’re talkin’ nanites.

evolution

Manufactured at a Federation facility in Dakar, nanites are microscopic robots designed to get inside cells and perform helpful tasks at the micrometer scale, like making repairs and eliminating infections. Their information storage capacity is measured in gigabytes, and with the right modifications (or the wrong ones, depending on how you look at it), they can even become smart enough to form a nascent civilization.

All right, maybe we don’t want that last part just yet, but the rest of it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering would seem to agree: they’ve built devices they call “microgrippers” that are about the size of the writing on a penny, and they think have some promising medical applications.

grippers

Made out of hydrogels, these little guys are basically tiny hands that can open and close on command in response to things like changes in temperature, acidity, or light. You can also direct where they go by incorporating magnetic particles into their structure and dragging them around with a magnet, like iron filings. Microgrippers might be useful for targeted drug delivery, holding onto capsules and then releasing them when they reach a specific area (like a warm, feverish spot). They could also be used to take highly selective biopsies: pilot a bunch of open ones to a particular zone, then close ’em up so they grab clumps of cells; you can then harvest them at your leisure and analyze their cargo.

The American Chemical Society, which published the Hopkins project, has video of the microgrippers flexing; go watch it. Neat, right? But what else do they remind you of?

scorpion

Uh oh.

But don’t panic: we’re a long way from worrying about Borg nanoprobes. These microgrippers are still way too big, aren’t intelligent, can’t network with each other, and (most importantly) don’t have the ability to take over living cells and convert them into biomechanical horrors. In a sense, Borg nanoprobes are like the evil, mirror universe version of nanites. And please, let’s not perform any experiments to see if I’m right about that! I’m not looking to start a prototype Borg collective anytime soon — I just want to see some more steps down the road to true nanites, and these microgrippers look like a great start.


 

Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

XPRIZE is an innovation engine. We design and operate prize competitions to address global crises and market failures, and incentivize teams around the world to solve them. Currently, we are operating numerous prizes, including the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, challenging privately funded teams to successfully land a robot on the Moon’s surface, and the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, challenging teams around the world to create a portable, wireless, Star Trek-inspired medical device that allows you to monitor your health and medical conditions anywhere, anytime. The result? Radical innovation that will help us all live long and prosper.