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Submarines to fight cancer

Wednesday, 14 September 2022
Swimming tiny robots may offer new ways to deliver cancer drugs exactly where they are needed most, making new treatments possible.

Tania Patiño Padial started working on micro and nano robots that are able to swim at the Institute for Bio Engineering of Catalonia (IBEC) in Barcelona.  These may be used for targeted drug delivery in humans. She now continues her research as an assistant professor at ICMS. "The crux lies in multidisciplinary communication. The robot design and motion are physics, the fuel system is chemistry, the biocompatibility and targeting are microbiology and the drug delivery is pharmacology."

"With smart nano-bio devices we try to mimic nature", Tania Patiño Padial explains. "Enzymes are natural catalysts that can generate active motion by converting chemical energy into movement." The selection of the right enzyme for a specific purpose is far from trivial. A platinum coating can for instance be used as an inorganic catalyst for a reaction fueled by hydrogen peroxide. Bubbles are formed that set the device in motion.

At IBEC, Patiño Padial fitted out this enzymatic transport system with the enzyme urease, which catalyzes the hydrolysis of urea into ammonia and carbon dioxide. It was the ideal set-up against bladder cancer, as the bladder can act as a giant fuel tank for the device. "We injected it in the bladder of mice and followed the functionality through medical imaging", says Patiño Padial. "The directionality proved challenging. Furthermore, most applications will not be in the bladder, but in the bloodstream. It was a nice proof on concept, but there were enough remaining challenges."