Can DNA Nanobots Successfully Treat Cancer Patients? First Human Trial Soon

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“No, no it’s not science fiction; it’s already happening,” said Ido Bachelet to a somewhat incredulous audience member at a London event late last year. Bachelet, previously of Harvard’s Wyss Institute and faculty member at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, is a leading figure in the field of DNA nanotechnology.

In a brief talk, Bachelet said DNA nanobots will soon be tried in a critically ill leukemia patient. The patient, who has been given roughly six months to live, will receive an injection of DNA nanobots designed to interact with and destroy leukemia cells—while causing virtually zero collateral damage in healthy tissue.

According to Bachelet, his team have successfully tested their method in cell cultures and animals and written two papers on the subject, one in Science and one in Nature.

Contemporary cancer therapies involving invasive surgery and blasts of drugs can be as painful and damaging to the body as the disease itself. If Bachelet's approach proves successful in humans, and is backed by more research in the coming years, the team’s work could signal a transformational moment in cancer treatment.

Bachelet envisions a day when it won’t just be the critically ill receiving nanobot injections. Quite the opposite. Healthy people will go for their annual checkup and receive an injection. The nanobots will screen the body for any type of cancer—they can already identify 12 tumor types—and eliminate it before it can spread, perhaps before it's even detectable.

You might forgive the audience their incredulous (if excited) reaction. It does sound like science fiction. And indeed, tempered expectations in any new approach, no matter how exciting, are warranted. Animals aren't humans, and one human isn't most (or all) humans. There is clearly a lot more work to be done, and we'll know more later.

That said, while it will only be an early trial in one patient, the work does seem to be progressing rapidly. Bachelet and his colleague Shawn Douglas have been working on DNA nanobots for just three years.

The broader field of DNA nanotechnology, however, has existed since the early eighties.

The field’s pioneer, Ned Seeman, first conceived of bending strands of DNA into geometric shapes at a campus pub over three decades ago. Since then, researchers have learned to construct a menagerie of two- and three-dimensional shapes.

Tiles, cubes, spheres, polyhedrons, gears, letters, and smiley faces.

To make DNA nanostructures, scientists link short DNA strands to points along a longer strand, a bit like pieces of tape or staples, to bend it into form. Once designed, synthetic DNA strands are fabricated to spec.

The best part? There's no expensive and painstaking fabrication, shape by shape. Scientists mix the DNA, heat the solution, and as it cools, multitudes of tiny shapes self-assemble. Aided by new software engineered to predict and model how the DNA will fold, the design process is becoming more efficient.

But the reason Bachelet and his colleagues' call their creations robots (and not just inert shapes) is that they perform actions given the right conditions. The nanobots themselves are cylindrical clamshells on flexible DNA hinges. Locked with twin DNA double helixes at the front, they carry a molecular payload, like a cancer drug, inside.

The DNA locks are engineered to react only with specific molecules or proteins on the surfaces of cancer cells. If present, the locks bind to these molecules, the clam shell opens, and the nanobot’s payload is delivered. This allows the nanobots to release drugs only near cancer cells, sparing the body’s population of otherwise healthy cells.

While the nanobots are made of organic, biocompatible material, one might imagine the body pegging them as foreign invaders and launching an immune response. But Bachelet has said he's confident the bots can be tuned to avoid this. The body otherwise clears them from the system after a little while.

Bachelet says the larger vision of more precise drug delivery reopens the possibility of using already discovered drugs deemed too toxic. And his vision stretches beyond cancer to DNA nanobots performing surgery on the cellular level—even mending spinal injuries by bridging severed nerves and actively directing them how to reconnect.

But all that is still firmly in the future. There is yet more work to be done.

Image Credit:

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 17 Responses

  • DSM January 8, 2015 on 12:51 pm

    Ido, you haven’t just found the cure for many cancers, you may well have also created the framework for a universal antibiotic!

    It is all just cells down there (ignoring virii for the moment), our good cells, our bad cells, other good cells (bacteria, etc) and the pathogenic cells, so if you can detect and interact with a cell, that just happens to be a not-self and is pathogenic, you can kill it, or even just reprogram it to have less resistance to the bodies defences.

    Woo hooo, does a happy dance.

    I guess we now have a use for the appendix again, to carry modified bacteria that make DNA nanobots for us. 🙂

  • G-Paradox January 8, 2015 on 1:22 pm

    Sound great!
    Keep us posted on the leukemia trial.

  • dobermanmacleod January 8, 2015 on 9:56 pm

    Rather than “nanobots,” I’ve heard it described (more accurately in my opinion) as “DNA origami.”

  • Quantium January 9, 2015 on 1:43 am

    If this experiment works, I should think that many people would want to take the risk of this treatment rather than opt for the legally acceptable “slash poison or burn” alternatives that are not guaranteed to work either.

  • evokanevo January 9, 2015 on 9:04 pm

    This article is very misleading – unfortunately a lot of people hype and get overly excited about technologies they don’t understand. Extracellular targeted delivery isn’t really targeted – I challenge you to name a single clinical success. This is basically targeted prodrug therapy, which has failed. You can look up antibody-drug conjugates and abzymes. This is not to say that cell-specific targeting can’t or doesn’t work, just that when you release cytotoxic agents outside of the cell, they don’t stay localized.

    • rjoyceapple evokanevo January 13, 2015 on 1:42 pm

      One of the main reasons abzymes therapy fails is because it uses a bacterial enzyme to deliver the drug. The body naturally rejects the bacterium as it should. Attempts to make the enzyme “humanized” are only partially successful.

      This therapy survives the bodies immune system, and therefore survives to actually deliver the drug.

      • evokanevo rjoyceapple January 15, 2015 on 8:10 pm

        The main issue I’m bringing up is that the release mechanism is extracellular. That is the main problem with antibody/prodrug conjugates + abzymes. Yes, efficiency is another – but that’s tangential. They don’t show anything indicating that the response would be localized – in fact they use antibodies as a payload because the antibody provides specificity. But this could be done without the delivery mechanism at all.

        Finally, I’m not sure what you mean by “it survives the immune system”. As far as I can tell, their therapy could only be used as a one-shot therapy, until the immune system mounts a response.

  • Archit Jain January 10, 2015 on 2:40 am

    Hi. Yes evokanevo that seems to be an open problem still but the hope is that when the toxins are released close to the target then they do not go much far. Sure there will be boundary conditions but not any thing significant. Leakage will be minimized….. Hence the damage..!! Much better than radiation..

  • Quantium January 10, 2015 on 3:41 am

    Ultimately something like this is going to be the cure for cancer, and probably a lot of other diseases. Whether it is this one specifically remains to be seen, and it certainly isn’t going to be easy.

    Apart from gross trauma such as a car accident all disease is something on a cellular basis, so repair must be on a cellular basis. Otherwise it is like trying to repair a PC motherboard with a plumber’s blowlamp, mole grips or stillsons. It is amazing that so much has been achieved by surgeons radiographers and chemotherapists, and all credit to them, but they do need to step aside quickly and without argument when better alternatives appear, as appear they will.

  • jambo January 15, 2015 on 3:03 am

    I agree with evokanevo that this doesn’t really seem that much more exciting than antibody-drug conjugates, and seems less exciting than Chimeric Antigen Receptor T Cells (CART Cells) to the CD19 receptor which bring an entire cell with them to kill a cancer cell, can kill many cancer cells, and multiply in response to the detection of cancer cells.

    Still, it is hard to predict the prospects of new technology.

    I am curious as to whether DNA nanobots would make a better delivery vector for somatic gene therapy/editing? It looks to me like they could carry a large DNA payload, perhaps with some lipid coat or other method needed to get this DNA inside the cells once the DNA nanobot has guided them to the target cell and opened the ‘cage’.

  • jambo January 15, 2015 on 5:20 am

    Ok I see from another video that one advantage over antibody drug conjugates is that the toxic molecule in a DNA nanodevice is stored safely inside the cage, and can even be excreted from the body that way, meaning perhaps lower drug toxicity.

    I think the best term for these things is DNA nanocages.

  • David Dougher January 16, 2015 on 6:13 am

    One issue that is not being considered is the speed at which cancerous cells are killed and purged from the body. Assuming that the nanobot process is effective there is a major issue in how fast the cells are killed and removed from the body. Tumors in the body occupy positions in the body and the rapid destruction of these clusters could actually kill the patient. A typical example is lung cancer, where the death and replacement of cells typically takes place at a fairly slow rate. The rapid destruction of cancer cells in the lungs could actually lead to lung collapse, internal bleeding and a host of other issues.

    So, while this may prove to be excellent news in specific cases, until a timer mechanism can be joined with the nanobots to allow replacement of cancerous cells with healthy cells this cure may prove to be as dangerous as the disease.

    • Brock Setheus Tunnicliffe David Dougher March 18, 2015 on 5:33 am

      I think that I saw somewhere that the by-product of the process was that the cancer cells became Macrophages. I am not super confident in my understanding of all of this, but wouldn’t the macrophages solve the “void” issue?. If the cancer cells are engulfed by white blood cells, wouldn’t they be enough to hold structure?.
      Then again, I may not understand this stuff at all 😛

  • Carlos Ramirez June 2, 2015 on 5:17 pm

    and what happend with the experiment???
    wasnt it true?

    • SweetDoug Carlos Ramirez February 20, 2016 on 7:10 am


      Now it’s Saturday, February 20, 2016, and nuttin’ but…


      You know they cured diabetes, eh? 10 years ago at Sick Kids in Toronto.

      “I couldn’t believe it,” said Dr. Michael Salter, a pain expert at the Hospital for Sick Children and one of the scientists. “Mice with diabetes suddenly didn’t have diabetes any more.”

      Called the doctor a few weeks ago about this and left a message with his assistant.

      Neva got back to me.

      Like to know how that treatment turned out. I think a lot of people would, eh?


  • Carlos Ramirez June 2, 2015 on 5:19 pm


  • Tom Stark April 10, 2016 on 9:25 pm

    This is potentially exciting to me. This is similar (in a way) to a treatment I got for my cancer. I got a drug called Bexxar which carried a radioactive isotope attached to iodine and it went after my cancer cells, leaving the healthy ones alone. Sadly I relapsed, and even more sadly the company GSK decided to stop making this very effective less toxic treatment, and will not allow others to make it either. My cancer if a lymphoma, and is incurable, so there is just treatment. fortunately it is VERY slow growing, so that is good. Still, something like these nanobots may be in my future, it 10 or 20 years, and I should still be around!