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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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Public praised for ‘heroic’ acts in detaining attacker in NZ supermarket stabbing | World News

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Shoppers and staff at a New Zealand supermarket have been praised for their courage in trying to stop an attacker armed with a knife while waiting for police to arrive.

The man stabbed four people, including two employees at the Countdown supermarket in the South Island city of Dunedin on Monday.

All four victims are in hospital, with three in a serious but stable condition, while the fourth is described as being in a moderate condition.

According to NZ media reports, one is a Department of Corrections officer, one is his wife (a nurse), the third is a manager at the supermarket and the other is a female employee.

New Zealand Police superintendent Paul Basham said he had watched CCTV footage of the attack and the efforts of bystanders to detain the man until police arrived were “nothing short of heroic”.

“This was a fast-moving and extremely traumatic event for every person in the supermarket – for the victims who were stabbed, for those who were present who tried to intervene and those who had to flee to a place of safety.

“What I can say is that those who intervened, some of whom became injured themselves, I think have acted selflessly and with great courage to prevent this man from hurting anybody else,” he said.

A man, 42, has been charged with four counts of attempted murder and he will appear in court later today.

He was also injured in the attack and was treated under police guard.

Supermarket staff embrace as police officers take a victim to an ambulance outside a Countdown supermarket in central Dunedin, New Zealand, Monday May 10, 2021. Pic: AP
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Four people were injured, including two supermarket employees. Pic: AP

The motivation for the attack has not been confirmed, with Mr Basham saying: “On the face of what we currently know, we believe this was a random attack”.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also praised the actions of those in the supermarket during the attack, describing them as “courageous acts…to protect those around them”.

Supermarket chain Countdown said employees were “shocked and devastated” by what had happened, adding: “We are deeply upset that customers who tried to help our team members were also injured”.

The company said its priority is the injured employees and “caring for our wider team in the wake of this extremely traumatic event”.

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COVID-19: Overweight and obese more likely to test positive for the virus | World News

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People with a higher body mass index – BMI – are more likely to test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, a study suggests.

Research by Chaim Sheba Medical Centre in Israel found that people who are overweight – with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 – are 22% more likely to contract the virus.

The figure for people who are obese – with a BMI between 30 and 34.9 – rises to 27%.

For those who are morbidly obese, with a BMI at or above 40, the risk increases by 86%.

Some 26,030 people were tested between 16 March and 31 December last year and 1,178 positive COVID-19 tests were recorded.

Even after age, sex, and other medical conditions were considered, the relationship between BMI and the probability of a person testing positive remained significant, the researchers found.

The study authors concluded: “As BMI rises above normal, the likelihood of a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result increases, even when adjusted for a number of patient variables.

“Furthermore, some of the comorbidities associated with obesity appear to either be associated with an increased risk of infection or to be protective.”

People with diabetes were 30% more likely to test positive, while the likelihood was six times greater for those with high blood pressure.

But the risk was reduced for those with a history of stroke (by 39%), ischemic heart disease (by 55%) and chronic kidney disease (by 45%).

The researchers were unable to explain this.

Also, research by the IRCCS Policlinico San Donato research hospital in Italy, has found that abdominal obesity is more important than general obesity in predicting the severity of chest X-ray results in coronavirus patients.

Abdominal obesity is fat around the waist as opposed to general obesity, which is determined by BMI.

Chest X-ray severity scores were calculated by dividing each lung into three zones, with each one scoring a maximum of three points – zero for normal lung performance and three for poor function.

Some 59% of patients with abdominal obesity had a high score, whereas this was true for just 35% of those without abdominal obesity.

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Hamas says it has fired rockets at Jerusalem in retaliation for Israeli ‘aggression’ | World News

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A number of rockets have been fired at Jerusalem and the surrounding area, says Israel’s military.

It came minutes after an ultimatum from Hamas for Israel to withdraw forces from two flashpoints in the city.

The group claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it retaliation for Israeli “crimes and aggression”.

Israel carried out a missile strike in northern Gaza in response, causing injuries, according to Palestinian media.

Seven rockets had set off sirens in Jerusalem and the surrounding area and rocket fire from Gaza was continuing, said Israel’s military.

A civilian car was hit and one person injured by one of the rockets, it added.

Sky’s Mark Stone, in Jerusalem, said he understood a number of rockets were fired at an area 10-15km west of the city.

He said Israel’s Iron Dome defence system is believed to have destroyed most, but that a few landed.

Stone said the attack was almost certain to mean a “heavy night of bombardment” on Hamas base the Gaza Strip this evening.

It comes as clashes in Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israeli forces reportedly injured more than 300 people.

Police fired stun grenades and tear gas inside the Old City’s Al Aqsa Mosque during the violence this morning.

Israeli authorities said “extremists” had thrown stones and other objects at officers, and onto a road near the Western Wall where thousands of people had gathered to pray.

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