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Are These Self-Propelled Micro-Machines The Future Of Medicine?

Tiny “micromotors” just made their first trip through a living body, and that might only be the beginning.

nanomachine image from shutterstock

From 1966’s The Fantastic Voyage to Marvel’s upcoming Ant Man, we’ve spent decades entertaining ourselves with fantastical stories about science’s ability to make big things small, and small things extraordinary. Now, in a case of life imitating art, we may be poised on the cusp of a nano-revolution that breaks free from science fiction, and into the realm of science fact.


Writing in the American Chemical Society’s ACS Nano Journal, a group of scientists from the University Of California, San Diego’s Nanoengineering department announced that, for the first time ever, they have successfully tested a series of orally-ingested micro-machines which self-propel into the stomach lining of their living host – a feat that, up until now, had only been accomplished on laboratory tissue samples. Explains the BBC:

The machines, made of polymer tubes coated with zinc, are just 20 micrometers long - the width of a strand of human hair.

In stomach acid, the zinc reacts to produce bubbles of hydrogen, which propel the machines into the lining of the stomach, where they attach.

As the machines dissolve, they deliver their cargoes into the stomach tissue.

Before you shudder at the idea of an army of robots going to work in (and on) your stomach, keep in mind that the science has a ways to go before it reaches Innerspace-levels of sci-fi complexity. Still, the development of edible, self-destructing nanites, capable of pin-point medicinal accuracy inside a living body, represents a significant step toward a world where your health isn’t monitored and managed through “wearable” tech, but instead through “ingestibles” – medical machines working inside you, rather than on your wrist.

It’s a disquieting thought for some, but for doctors constantly on the lookout for new ways of effectively delivering medicine to where your body needs it most, this could very well be a breakthrough.

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