Small Wonders: Micro-Machines in Medicine
Smalley tells WebMD that nanotechnology is already used in
medicine in the form of man-made molecules that are coupled with toxic
chemicals or radioactive particles. These molecules, which do not exist in
nature, can deliver drugs or lethal doses of radiation to cancerous tumors, for
example. From there, it's not much of a leap, he says, to imagine drug delivery
using micromanufactured tubes, so-called nanotubes.
In testimony before Congress in 1999, Smalley forecast other
uses for nanotechnology in medicine. They include rapid genetic analysis that
would allow diagnosis and treatment customized to fit an individual patient
based on his or her genetic profiles; more durable artificial organs that would
be less likely to be rejected by the recipient's immune system; and
"sensing systems, which will allow the detection of emerging disease in the
living body, and will ultimately shift the focus of patient care from disease
treatment to early detection and/or prevention," he says.
Other medical applications of nanotechnology that at first seem
to be far out in left field are in fact coming pretty close to home, says
Leslie Rubinstein, president of Renaissance Technologies in Lexington, Ky. In
an interview with WebMD, he describes the use of practical nanorobots for
treatment of various medical problems. The minimedic machines could be built
using existing technology -- such as that used to make tiny computer chips. The
robots themselves would be designed to boldly go where no robot has gone before
-- that is, into areas of the body that are hard to reach -- and where the goal
is to get rid of something that shouldn't be there.
Similar work is being performed at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology in Cambridge, where Ian Hunter, PhD, professor of mechanical
engineering and bioengineering and his colleagues are developing
"nanowalkers" that would do for medicine what robotic probes have done
for space exploration. The nanowalkers could crawl over, around, or through the
body to image and diagnose diseases that lie hidden from conventional scanning
techniques, deliver drugs to tumors, or repair organs without the need for
There are those who worry that once we've started down the path
to fashioning self-assembling robots, there may be no turning back, and that
one day, we may wake up and find that the robots have multiplied and taken on
life of their own.
"They start talking to one another and pretty soon what
you've really got is a wholly alien artificial life form, a true Franken-thing.
And I agree that would be terrifying if it were true, but I deny even the
possible existence of this thing," says Smalley.
"We're so far away from anything remotely resembling a
self-assembling robot that it's silly to worry about it right now."