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These tiny robots could be disease-fighting machines inside the body

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Call it another case of science fiction becoming scientific fact. Researchers have long dreamed of developing tiny robots that could roam about inside our bodies, delivering drugs with unprecedented precision, and hunting down and destroying cancer cells.

We’re not there yet, but we’re getting close. Last month scientists from China’s National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNT) and Arizona State University said they had developed robots a few hundred nanometers across — there are 25 million nanometers in an inch — and when they injected them into the bloodstream of mice, the nanorobots could shrink tumors by blocking their blood supply.

The nanorobots were made from sheets of DNA rolled into tubes containing a blood-clotting drug. On the outside, the researchers placed a small DNA molecule that binds with a protein found only in tumors. When the bots reached tumors, this molecule attached to the protein, triggering the DNA tube to unroll and release the drug.

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Most cancer drugs typically have nasty side effects because they can’t distinguish between cancer cells and healthy ones. The researchers showed that the nanorobots only targeted the tumors and didn’t cause clotting elsewhere in the body. They say this offers a promising future of cancer treatments free of side effects.

Such a device is very different from the human-scale bots that build our cars and vacuum our floors. But Guangjun Nie, one of the NCNT professors who developed the nanorobots, points out that they are able to sense their environment, navigate, and carry out mechanical tasks just like large robots.

The researchers are working with a biotech firm to commercialize the cancer-fighting nanobots. And Nie says this is just a taste of what DNA nanorobots could do.

“What we call nanorobots are the next generation of nanomedicines because they give you much better control and can be made to work like a machine,” he says. “In the future we will demonstrate even more scenarios for our nanorobots from monitoring disease, to finding tissue damage, curing cancer and maybe even finding and destroying plaques in our blood vessels.”

Taking cues from sci-fi

The idea of tiny disease-fighting machines working inside the human body can be traced at least as far back as the 1966 release of the movie “Fantastic Voyage,” in which a submarine and its crew were shrunk down and injected into a scientist’s body to remove a dangerous blood clot.

 Stephen Boyd and Raquel Welch are part of a team of scientists that are shrunk down and injected into a human body in “Fantastic Voyage” from 1966. Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

In real life, of course, it’s not so easy to shrink machines, much less humans. Computer chips, electric motors, and batteries are typically too bulky to operate in blood vessels or between cells.

But being able access hard-to-reach areas of our bodies could have profound implications for medicine, so scientists are scrambling to find ways to power and control inside-the-body bots.

In addition to boosting the effectiveness and lessening the side effects of powerful drugs, nanorobots loitering in our bloodstream could act as early warning systems for disease. And tiny wireless surgical tools could let doctors perform medical procedures without cutting people open.

Micro surgeons

Eric Diller, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto in Canada, is working on this last problem. He’s developing robots just under a millimeter across that are built from elastic polymers filled with magnetic particles that can be dragged through fluids and triggered to grasp objects.

These tiny bots are controlled by precise magnetic fields generated by an array of electromagnets. The robots could eventually be used to collect tissue biopsies or carry drug capsules inside the body, says Diller.

 Robots being developed at the University of Toronto resemble unfolded cubes, with four rectangular arms that fold up to grasp things. Jiachen Zhang and Eric Diller / University of Toronto

His lab has yet to test the devices in animals, but researchers at ETH Zurich, in Switzerland, have already tested a similar magnetically guided microbot in the eye of a rabbit, using it to puncture a blood vessel with its needle-like tip. The ultimate goal, Diller says, is to create a suite of wirelessly powered surgical tools.

“Instead of having an open wound site we would like to be able to inject surgical tools,” he says. “We could do non-invasive, not just minimally invasive, procedures with no external cuts and without the complications that come from surgery.”

Motorized medicine

Probably the most developed and versatile approach to microscopic medical robots uses so-called “nanomotors” and “micromotors.” These are tiny particles, tubes, or wires made from materials like gold, magnesium, and carbon. They either propel themselves using fuels found in the body — such as stomach acid or water — or are dragged or pushed around by magnetic fields or ultrasound waves.

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Researchers have shown that these devices can precisely navigate to disease sites and can even penetrate deep into diseased tissue to deliver drugs more efficiently. When combined with biosensors like enzymes or antibodies, they can create much more sensitive ways to detect chemical signals of disease, because their movement means they bump into other molecules more frequently.

By the same principle, combining them with nanosponges that absorb toxins could someday create tiny robots that efficiently mop up harmful substances in the body.

Dr. Joseph Wang, a professor of nanoengineering at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the pioneers of this field. Last August, his lab demonstrated that micromotors loaded with antibiotics and powered by stomach acid could treat stomach infections in mice more effectively than taking the drug by itself.

“We just dump the motors in the stomach and they just swim autonomously,” he said. “It’s like taking a pill and forgetting about it.”

Nature’s nanobots

Meanwhile, other researchers are looking for ways to harness and redirect the activities of nature’s own tiny machines.

In December, a group at the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Germany loaded sperm cells with anti-cancer drugs and fitted them with tiny magnetic harnesses. The sperm tails provided propulsion but the harnesses let the researchers guide them using a magnetic field toward mini cervical cancer tumors that had been grown in a petri dish. They killed 87 percent of the tumors’ cells within three days.

And in 2016, a team from Polytechnique Montréal in Canada hijacked bacteria that naturally swim along magnetic field lines, loading them with cancer drugs and using artificial magnetic fields to steer them to tumors in mice.

Eventually, Diller says building in-the-body robots from scratch will give us much greater control over their functionality. But we’re still a long way from being able to mimic nature’s innovations, so for now, these bio-hybrid approaches are a smart idea.

“At this point in time there is a compelling argument for using these organisms that are already functional and trying to modify them to do what our goal is,” he says. “They have much more functionality than the devices we can build today.”

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COVID-19: Millions of Indians travel to celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela despite rising coronavirus rates | World News

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They have gathered in their millions in the temple town of Haridwar, in Uttarakhand.

Hindu pilgrims have come to celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that happens once every 12 years.

And today is a very auspicious day in the religious calendar to take a dip in India‘s River Ganges.

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Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
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Coronavirus rates have increased in India the last few months, with the country in the midst of a second wave

All this amid a raging pandemic.

The festival has been been flagged as a super spreader as more than 50 million people are expected to attend this month-long event.

The country registered almost 170,000 new cases in the last 24 hours, the highest number of COVID-19 cases anywhere in the world.

With more than 13.5 million cases, India is second only to the United States.

In the same period, 839 people died, taking the total number of COVID-19 related deaths to 170,209.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
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Millions will gather this month to celebrate the Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it

Sarasswati Dattani, 56, has travelled over 400 miles (644km) from Rajasthan with her husband.

She tells Sky News: “Our children had tried to stop us because of coronavirus.

“I am not afraid, Mother Ganga is with us all the time.

“People are getting the virus sitting at home. We have to die once, it’s all in God’s hands.”

Raghav, 25, from Jalandhar in Punjab, says “coronavirus could not stop me from my belief in God, our faith is far stronger than anything at the moment.

“I have also come to pray that this pandemic gets over soon.”

The devotees come from every part of the country and a majority are from smaller towns and villages.

The fear among health activists is that rural India will be exposed to the virus.

Speaking to Sky News, Dr Atulya Mishra, who is the medical officer in charge of a section of the banks, said: “People are very irresponsible, they do not follow any of the COVID-19 behaviour protocols.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
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Health experts have urged people not to travel but people are not following guidance

“We provide them with face masks but people don’t wear them.

“We put our lives on the line while the public takes the virus very lightly. It is very frustrating for us health workers.”

The administration has enforced COVID-19 protocols – pilgrims must wear face masks and are only allowed to attend with a negative PCR test result.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
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People will take a dip in the River Ganges during the month-long festival

But in reality, social distancing is almost impossible to enforce.

India is in the midst of a second wave.

The low number of cases in the winter months had lulled people into believing it’s over.

Opening up society, a low fatality rate and vaccinations have led to Indians letting their guard down.

The festival will also mean people take a dip in the River Ganges
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The festival is seen as a super spreader event

For many weeks the country has been immersed in state elections.

The prime minister, his cabinet and leaders of all political parties are campaigning at rallies with thousands in attendance.

Roadshows expose every nook and corner.

Experts have also said the new variants of the virus are far more infectious but less lethal.

Genome sequencing of all cases in Punjab show around 80% of them are due to the UK variant.

While millions will make their way to the Maha Kumbh over the next few weeks, the rising number of cases are sure of grave concern for the government.

India began its vaccination programme on 16 January but less than 1% of the population have been fully vaccinated.

Though the process had a slow start it has picked up pace over the last few weeks.

India may have one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, but it can ill afford a severe burden on its already inadequate and creaking public health care system.

For decades successive governments have spent just over 1.2% of the GDP on healthcare.

Over 70% of its citizens rely on expensive private health care and one illness can push a family into poverty.

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China deploys jets and bombers into Taiwanese airspace in ‘biggest incursion to date’ | World News

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Twenty-five Chinese military aircraft have entered Taiwanese airspace in the largest reported incursion to date, according to officials.

Taiwan‘s government has complained in recent months after repeated missions by China‘s air force near the island.

The incursions have been concentrated in the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence zone.

Pic AP
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Chinese vessels and aircrafts have conducted drills near Taiwan for several years, but in the last 12 months the actions have stepped up. Pic AP

The latest mission on Monday involved 14 J-16 and four J-10 fighter jets – and four H-6K bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons.

Two anti-submarine aircraft and an early warning aircraft also took part, Taiwan’s defence minister said.

It is believed to be the largest incursion by the Chinese air force into Taiwanese airspace, and officials said combat aircraft were dispatched to intercept and warn the intruders away.

Missile systems were also deployed to monitor the Chinese vessels as the aircraft flew in an area close to Thailand’s Pratas Islands, according to the defence ministry.

It came just three days after the US issued new guidelines that will deepen its ties with Taiwan.

The latest guidelines from the US State Department will mean American officials can meet more freely with their Taiwanese counterparts.

America, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but it has watched on as tensions between Beijing and the island nation have stepped up in recent years.

Pic Reuters
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Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu has vowed the island nation will ‘fight to the very last day’ if China attacks

Washington’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Friday that the US is concerned about China’s aggressive actions against Taiwan – and warned it would be a “serious mistake” for anyone to try to change the status quo in the Western Pacific by force.

Mr Blinken’s statement came after Taiwan scrambled an aircraft to broadcast a warning message after 12 Chinese jets flew over its airspace on 7 April.

The tense start to 2021 comes after a report released by a government-backed think tank found that China made a record 380 incursions into Taiwan’s defence zone last year.

China describes Taiwan as its most sensitive territorial issue and a red line the US should not cross.

Beijing sees the island as a breakaway province that will one day become part of the country again. It has never renounced the possible use of force to bring about eventual unification.

However, Taiwanese people see themselves an independent state and the dispute with their giant neighbour has left relations frayed with the constant threat of violence.

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January 2021: Taiwan military simulates China attack

China has in the past described its missions as being to protect the country’s sovereignty and deal with “collusion” between Taipei and Washington.

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu has previously said the country will fight “to the very last day” if China attacks.

More widely, China continues to exercise its muscle in the South China Sea.

Over the weekend, military activity near the Philippines spiked as a Chinese aircraft carrier entered the region, and the US military is preparing joint drills with the Philippine military nearby.

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Off-duty Italian police officers find stolen Roman statue in Belgium – a decade after it vanished | World News

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A first-century Roman statue has been recovered by two off-duty Italian police officers almost a decade after it was stolen.

The statue was stolen from the Villa Marini Dettina, an archaeological site on the outskirts of Rome, in November 2011 and has now been found in an antique shop in Belgium.

It was discovered by the off-duty officers from the Italian police’s archaeological unit.

The Togatus statue, featuring a headless Roman wearing a draped toga, is valued at €100,000 (£86,000).

The statue is believed to be worth 100,000 (£860,000) and was stolen from an archaeological site near Rome. Pic: AP
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The statue is believed to be worth 100,000 (£860,000) and was stolen from an archaeological site near Rome. Pic: AP

The two officers were on assignment in Brussels when they took a walk after work in the Sablon neighbourhood, known for its antique shops.

They spotted a statue that they suspected was from Italy and confirmed their suspicions when they cross-referenced it with their stolen antique database.

An Italian businessman, who used a Spanish alias, has been referred to prosecutors for further investigation. He is alleged to have received and exported the statue abroad, police said.

Italian authorities have been attempting to recover stolen antiques for years.

In 2019, a dozen pieces of artwork were returned to Italy by private auction house Christie’s. The items featured a marble fragment from the sarcophagus in Rome’s catacombs of St Callixtus, a piece worth £50,000.

In June 2020, officials found a stolen Banksy mural in Italy that was taken from the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.

The image was created in memory of the victims of the 2015 terrorist attack in the French capital. It was cut out and removed from the concert hall in 2019.

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