Schematic drawing of the self-propelling MFN and HCT116 cell capture. Credit: Commun. Chem. Wavhale, R. D. et al.

Researchers at the Maharashtra Institute of Medical Education and Research in Pune, India, have designed efficient, light-emitting magnetic nanorobots that can capture circulating cancer cells in the blood samples of cancer patients1.

The nanorobots were propelled by the water present in blood, removing the need to use toxic chemicals. The scientists were able to guide the nanorobots remotely and separate them when they captured cancer cells using an external magnetic field.

The researchers say these nanorobots could potentially be used to develop cancer-detecting microchips.

The scientists, led by Shashwat Banerjee, produced the magnetic nanorobots by attaching hemispherical shells of iron oxide to magnesium nanoparticles. The nanoparticles were further modified with components that included an antibody or protein for targeting cancer cells and a light-emitting dye.

The magnesium in the nanorobots reacted with water in the fluids, generating hydrogen bubbles that pushed the tiny robots forward. Sodium bicarbonate in the fluids also helped to propel the robots and increased their ability to bind to cancer cells.

The nanorobots captured colon and breast cancer cells in simulated biological fluids and serum samples within five minutes.

In blood samples isolated from epithelial cancer patients, the nanorobots captured cancer cells even when their numbers were as low as 5 in 1ml.

This research shows these nanorobots could be used to devise a low-cost method for detecting various cancers in a clinical setting, says Banerjee.