“We want to show that nanorobotics is not a dream and can be very effective”

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The nanorobots are getting closer to becoming a medical solution real and practical. Convinced of this is Samuel Sánchez, a researcher at the Institute of Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) who, after years analyzing how these microparticles can revolutionize medicine, entered their application to treat oncological processes. Now, the project that he coordinates to concretely cure the bladder cancer -the fifth most frequent in Spain and one whose tumors reappear more easily- has been one of the 30 selected by the CaixaResearch program for excellence in health research of the ”la Caixa” Foundation and will receive more than 997,900 euros to advance its investigation. Sánchez talks to ABC about the opportunity of advancing in the understanding of the behavior of nanoparticles in the human body in order to be able to include them, in the not too distant future, in the oncological fight.

-What does your project consist of?

-We are experts in nanorobotics. We work with nanoparticles that we manage to self-propel and that we want to reach tumor cells and release the most appropriate drug against bladder cancer. Through a chemical reaction, in this case with urease enzymes, we make these particles move. We have been able to see how the swarm of nanorobots behaves, how they collectively move within living beings, thanks to innovative in vivo molecular imaging techniques, with the help of the CIC biomaGUNE Cooperative Research Center in Biomaterials, which collaborates in the project. At the same time, we contacted the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) and the Fundación Clínic per a la Recerca Biomèdica, also involved and whose leaders considered that the idea was magnificent for bladder cancer.

-Why the bladder?

-It is the most expensive to cure. It is not the most deadly because it does not usually reach metastasis in many cases because it is caught in time. Although it is not very harmful, it has terrible side effects, because it often reappears and requires chemotherapy treatments, sometimes with many sessions, and which end up losing effectiveness. Nanorobots may be a more efficient method. Furthermore, in general, only 0.7% of the nanoparticles used in oncology manage to reach their target, but the bladder is a closed place and we can avoid the problems that blood flow can cause in this type of treatment. We want to be the first within the nanomotor and nanorobotics community to show that this is not really a dream: nanoparticles can have effective application.

– Would it be administered very differently from chemotherapy?

-With chemotherapy, the treatment is passed through the bladder directly and after half an hour they rotate the patient so that the drug does not settle when it touches the wall. On the contrary, with nanorobots we can improve the penetration of the treatment, which could also have a personalized design. Actually using nanobots in vivo and in patient cells is a disruptive idea never carried out until now, and it opens the doors to the development of personalized and efficient therapies against bladder cancer.

– At what point are your investigations?

-We work from two pillars. To develop nanorobots for precision medicine in vitro, we are receiving cells from the biopsies performed at the Hospital Clínic every week. They are small tumors and we grow them in the laboratory so that we can see how the nanorobots move thanks to three-dimensional images. From here we will be able to design nanorobots with specific antibody drugs for each subpopulation. In other words, we will be able to carry out personalized and precision medicine, which will be a tremendous clinical benefit. On the other hand, in parallel, we are working in the laboratory observing how nanorobots move in living mice with cancer. The objective is to see how we can improve the therapy and if we can reduce or kill the mouse tumor, among other aspects.

-Do you have any results on the experiments?

-It’s too early to say. The intention is that in a year these two pillars come together and we advance in the investigation. For now, with mice we are seeing results that look very good. In parallel, since this summer a doctor from the Clinic who collaborates with us has obtained tumor cells from 20 patients, from which we will investigate further, putting nanorobots with antibodies and trying to see which antigens are expressed and what will be the best configuration of these nanoparticles. Investigating with cells from patients is extremely important and many of the research groups in our field do not have it. Now we would like to have cells from up to a hundred patients to be able to make a good observation.

-What are nanorobots like?

-They are tiny particles, manufactured in the laboratory, of 300-400 nanometers. They are really very small and are administered with liquid. It is like chemotherapy, through which bacteria are injected, but they are smaller. And as I said, instead of requiring a change in posture for the drug to reach all parts of the bladder, the nanorobots are moving thanks to urea, which makes a chemical reaction. Actually, it works like a fuel: the urea gives the energy to the nanorobot, which moves more easily and reaches all the parts.

-Would your technique be useful in advanced oncological phases?

-We are studying a type of cancer that is the non-muscle-invasive tumor, which is the one that has not yet penetrated the walls of the bladder, otherwise it is too late to try our technique. So we are talking about cases in a mild or medium phase of the disease. Almost 80% of bladder cancers are of this type.

-And do nanorobots have a future to fight other types of cancer?

-Although the bladder is the clearest, we are investigating other tumors in collaboration with the Chemical Institute of Sarrià (IQS) and other technology centers. We are looking at lung cancer, skin cancer and other inflammatory processes, among others.

-Is personalized medicine the way to go?

-Nanoparticles can carry drugs and this is great news. With the coronavirus pandemic we have been able to see something similar, because their vaccines also have nanoparticles. At some point there was controversy over whether nanomedicine had an application. Now we do see it and on top of that we can give it a propulsion. To our nanoparticles, for example, we can put antibodies, drugs, genetic material and many other applications. Now we have to go step by step to prove it.

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