Engineers at the University of California San Diego have developed tiny ultrasound-powered robots that can swim through blood, removing harmful bacteria along with the toxins they produce. These proof-of-concept nanorobots could one day offer a safe and efficient way to detoxify and decontaminate biological fluids.
Researchers built the nanorobots by coating gold nanowires with a hybrid of platelet and red blood cell membranes. This hybrid cell membrane coating allows the nanorobots to perform the tasks of two different cells at once — platelets, which bind pathogens like MRSA bacteria (an antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus), and red blood cells, which absorb and neutralize the toxins produced by these bacteria. The gold body of the nanorobots responds to ultrasound, which gives them the ability to swim around rapidly without chemical fuel. This mobility helps the nanorobots efficiently mix with their targets (bacteria and toxins) in blood and speed up detoxification.
The work, published May 30 in Science Robotics, combines technologies pioneered by Joseph Wang and Liangfang Zhang, professors in the Department of NanoEngineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Wang’s team developed the ultrasound-powered nanorobots, and Zhang’s team invented the technology to coat nanoparticles in natural cell membranes.
“By integrating natural cell coatings onto synthetic nanomachines, we can impart new capabilities on tiny robots such as removal of pathogens and toxins from the body and from other matrices,” said Wang. “This is a proof-of-concept platform for diverse therapeutic and biodetoxification applications.”
“The idea is to create multifunctional nanorobots that can perform as many different tasks at once,” said co-first author Berta Esteban-Fernández de Ávila, a postdoctoral scholar in Wang’s research group at UC San Diego. “Combining platelet and red blood cell membranes into each nanorobot coating is synergistic — platelets target bacteria, while red blood cells target and neutralize the toxins those bacteria produce.”