Scientists develop DNA nanorobots capable of stopping cancer growth

Published: 13 February 2018


In a major breakthrough, scientists have successfully developed tiny nanorobots made of DNA and protein that can be directed at tumours, stopping them from growing.

The study was led by researchers at the National Centre for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, and involved the head of the Chronic Disorders Research Program at Brisbane’s QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Professor Greg Anderson.

To build the nanorobots, scientists specifically constructed sheets of DNA that were folded and bound together to form a tube-like structure using a technique called “DNA origami”.

Professor Greg Anderson said the group embedded the blood-clotting agent thrombin within the nanorobots to essentially starve the tumours of blood supply, once inside a body.

“Thrombin is a naturally-occurring protein that causes blood clots to form,” Professor Anderson said.

“This ability can be harnessed to kill tumour cells by developing a system where the thrombin only causes clots in the blood vessels that are feeding the tumour, and not elsewhere in the body.

“When that happens, the tumour cells no longer receive essential nutrients and they die.”

Using an extremely clever delivery method, the nanorobots were designed so that thrombin was only released after it was “unlocked” by a particular protein found within the blood vessels of tumours.

“The nanorobot keeps the clotting agent disguised until it reaches the place where we want it to act. In this case, that’s the tumour,” Professor Anderson said.

“This approach is novel in the way the team has combined a number of existing but different elements of nanotechnology to enable the controlled and targeted delivery of the blood-clotting agent.

“It shows just what is possible with contemporary biomedical technology and hints at what may be the future of intelligent drug delivery.”

Researchers said the technology behind the nanorobots could also be used to deliver a wide range of drugs and even multiple drugs at once.

During laboratory tests, the nanorobots proved to be highly effective at reducing the growth and spread of tumours with characteristics of breast cancer and melanoma in mice, however Professor Anderson said it was still some time until the strategy would be tested on humans.

“It is an extremely exciting first step, but more work needs to be done,” he said.