I am often proven wrong (just ask my wife), but usually not so quickly. This time it took only 4 days.
On Tuesday, at the request of the NRC Education and Outreach Office’s Joyce Palmer, I spoke to a group of students who make up the Rockin' Robots, a FIRST LEGO League team from Faith Lutheran School in Marietta. In particular, these elementary students are tasked, through the 2010 Body Forward Challenge, with exploring “the cutting-edge world of Biomedical Engineering to discover innovative ways to repair injuries, overcome genetic predispositions, and maximize the body's potential, with the intended purpose of leading happier and healthier lives.” Joyce wanted to know if I could address some of their questions related to bionanotechnology and provide a dose of reality. I prepared myself to dash water on their images of nanorobots coursing through the bloodstream fixing problems and keeping us fit and healthy. I remember thinking the movie Fantastic Voyage (based on the Isaac Asimov novel) was really cool at their age (and it had Raquel Welch in it).
I listened carefully, and with growing amazement, as the student leader of the team described their plan to use synthetic sandcastle worm glue to improve the healing of broken bones in the body. This concept is based on the research of Russell Stewart (University of Utah). He went on to explain that they would target the site of the breakage by coupling the delivery system with antibodies to osteoprotegerin, which is produced in the body to stimulate bone growth and increase bone density. Finally, a liposome delivery system was chosen for the project. My preconceived notions took another hit when I read on the team’s website (Osteo Repairo, a play on a Hogwarts spell) that they “first thought we would use nanobots to get there because they are cool and really small but then we kicked things around …and asked what could bond with the antibodies and he [Team Coach Dr. Shawn Jobe] explained about liposomes. Some of us have never heard of liposomes. Zach really thought they were awesome and Ethan built a model of one. After that we were all in with liposomes as a delivery method.”
Clearly, these students did not require me to lecture them on the difference between the promises of nanotechnology and the hype that is often used in both fiction and marketing. They were well-grounded in the facts and only needed me to clarify some of the subtleties (although I confessed to them that I am not an expert in the specific areas of their research). We discussed options for getting the treatment into the bloodstream (including microneedle patches), and I cautioned them that antibodies can have non-specific binding that could lead to unwanted delivery consequences.
Finally, my crow-eating was complete when I read this morning about a new drug delivery concept from the Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics at UC San Diego that involves “the directed delivery of common polymeric and liposomal drug carriers using catalytic nanomotors.” In particular, the futuristic image of an autonomous nanomachine, the specific image I tried to minimize in my discussion with the students, is now one step closer to reality. As lead researcher Joseph Wang puts it: “We are all motivated towards realizing the vision of the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage vision and by the potential to enhance medical treatment.”
I guess the Rockin’ Robots are not the only ones who think nanobots are “cool and really small.”