Submarines to fight cancer

September 14, 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. Photo: Leonie Voets

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."

Tania Patiño Padial. Photo: Leonie Voets

"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."    

Integrate functionalities

In the Francesco Ricci Lab at the University of Rome, Patiño Padial subsequently worked on DNA as a nanomaterial. "It's nice material to play with", she says. She aimed at an optimized shape and more controlled design of the nanobots.  "My plans at ICMS head in the same direction: to use synthetic DNA like Lego. I could use that to optimize the location of the recognition, fuel and motion parts. The key to overcome present challenges is to integrate multiple functionalities through immuno- and tissue-engineering and computational modeling."

Ideal environment

This should for instance enable the 'nano-submarine' to recognize and activate immune cells against cancer. Patiño Padial: "3D cell culture studies and mice models will eventually lead to a robot that really does that in humans. The complementary skills of the groups of Jan van Hest, Tom de Greef and others at ICMS and with the links to the Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, create the ideal multidisciplinary environment for this type of research."   

The article "Submarines to fight cancer" was first published in ICMS Magazine Edition 18, June 2022. The article was written by Leendert van der Ent.

Nicole van Overveld
(Science Information Officer)

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