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Legions of nanorobots target cancerous tumours with precision
Researchers from the Segal Cancer Centre and Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital collaborated with colleagues from the Polytechnique Montréal, Université de Montréal to develop new nanorobotic agents capable of navigating through the bloodstream to deliver a drug with precision directly to active cancer cells. This way of injecting medication ensures the optimal targeting of a tumor without jeopardizing the integrity of organs and surrounding healthy tissues. As a result, the risk of drug toxicity is significantly reduced. This breakthrough has been published in Nature Nanotechnology.
“This is an absolute game-changer,” enthuses Dr. Gerald Batist, Director of the Segal Cancer Centre, one of the paper’s authors. “The holy grail of cancer research is the discovery of a technology that can precisely target cancer while sparing healthy tissue. Nanorobotics could be the delivery system that we’ve been searching for because it can deliver a toxic molecule directly to the most resistant cells at the centre of a tumor and kill them.”
In a pre-clinical trial, nanorobotic agents were successfully administered into colorectal tumours in an animal model.
“These legions of nanorobotic agents were actually composed of more than 100 million flagellated bacteria – and therefore self-propelled – and loaded with drugs that moved by taking the most direct path between the drug’s injection point and the area of the body to cure,” explains Professor Sylvain Martel, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Medical Nanorobotics and Director of the Polytechnique Montréal Nanorobotics Laboratory, who heads the research team’s work. “The drug’s propelling force was enough to travel efficiently and enter deep inside the tumors.”
Upon entering a tumor, the nanorobotic agents can detect the oxygen-depleted tumor areas, known as hypoxic zones, and deliver the drug to them. This hypoxic zone is created by the substantial consumption of oxygen by rapidly proliferative tumor cells. Hypoxic zones are known to be resistant to most therapies, including radiotherapy.
To move around, the bacteria rely on two natural systems. A kind of compass created by the synthesis of a chain of magnetic nanoparticles allows them to move in the direction of a magnetic field, while a sensor measuring oxygen concentration enables them to reach and remain in the tumour’s active regions. By harnessing these two transportation systems and by exposing the bacteria to a computer-controlled magnetic field, researchers showed that these bacteria could perfectly replicate artificial nanorobots of the future designed for this kind of task.
“This innovative use of nanotransporters will have an impact not only on creating more advanced engineering concepts and original intervention methods, but it also throws the door wide open to the synthesis of new vehicles for therapeutic, imaging and diagnostic agents,” Professor Martel adds. “Chemotherapy, which is so toxic for the entire human body, could make use of these natural nanorobots to move drugs directly to the targeted area, eliminating the harmful side effects while also boosting its therapeutic effectiveness.”

Upon discovering this bacterial transport model around six years ago, Dr. Martel approached the Jewish General Hospital in search of collaborators with a clinical bent. Dr. Batist and Dr. Té Vuong, Director of Radiation Oncology at the Segal Cancer Centre, are playing lead roles in the clinical development of this innovation, which represents part of a larger collaboration between the JGH and Polytechnique Montréal.

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