Montpellier: researchers invent a revolutionary nanorobot capable of exploring a human cell

A team of scientists led by Gaëtan Bellot, a researcher at the structural biology center of the University of Montpellier, which brings together Inserm and the CNRS, has designed a “nanorobot”, a robot invisible to the naked eye whose size is the order of a nanometer, or one billionth of a meter. He is able to explore a cell of the human body which has 100 billion. Designed on the basis of synthetic DNA, the robot will notably make it possible to better understand diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, and to verify the effectiveness of therapies. The technological feat, an exciting adventure that plunges us into the world of the infinitely small, is the subject of a publication in the journal Nature Communication this Thursday, July 28.

“You see the robots that land on the moon, and are capable of surface exploration? Well, let’s imagine that the moon represents a cell. We have designed the first robot that will land on this cell and dock with its surface to explore the infinitely small like a Rover” : the striking image, used by Gaëtan Bellot, researcher at the structural biology center of the University of Montpellier, which associates Inserm and the CNRS, makes it possible to better understand the vertiginous performance, in the universe of the infinitely small , which has just been carried out by a team of scientists led by the Montpellier resident. It is the subject, this Thursday, July 28, of a publication in the prestigious scientific journal Kind Communication.

The nanorobot, invisible to the naked eye, uses “a building material” specific: it is an assembly of 700 “bricks” of synthetic DNA programmed by bioinformatics, which assemble according to the pattern defined after all the components have been immersed in a tube heated to 60° then brought back to a temperature 20°C to engage the mechanism. We could compare them to as many lego bricks associated thanks to a 3 D printing, describes Gaëtan Bellot, himself “fascinated” by the process.

“The most obvious area of ​​application is cancer”

The nanorobot, sitting on four “legs”, and advances in autonomous mode via a kind of “springs” or controlled by a “remote control”. What can he do? “It evaluates the receptors sensitive to the mechanical forces of the cells, the mechanoreceptors, which regulate biological processes. This concept makes it possible to better understand the functioning of the human body and thus even diseases in the event of dysfunction, the reaction of the body to a treatment , drugs. It has just earned the Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian the Nobel Prize in Medicine 2021. To work, the nanorobot has tools, like the mechanic’s “jack”, which have a sensitivity of the order of pico-newton, that is to say a thousand billion times less than the Newton, the force that is applied to the pressure cap of a pen, and a billion times less than the force of a falling confetti On the ground”recalls Gaëtan Bellot.

Applications in cancer research

The concept has been studied since 2010 and opens up a vast field of research and understanding, in micro-electronics but especially in the field of health: “The most obvious field is cancer, because cancer cells, to move and metastasize, use force sensors to test their environment. But these mechanoreceptors are also very numerous on neurons, and many applications are opening up in the field of neurodegenerative diseases”.

“To study a system, you need suitable tools. To repair a car, they measure between 10 cm and 1 m. For a smartphone, they will have to be smaller. If we want to better understand the functioning of a cell in the human body , you need a tool on the scale of a nanometer, which is a billion times smaller than the tool that makes it possible to repair the car. our nanorobot “, details Gaëtan Bellot.

First in vitro studies

Here, we remain in the field of fundamental research: there is no question of embedding the robot in the human body, “the first studies will be carried out in vitro, on cancer cell lines”, explains the Montpellier player. But “everything can go very quickly”. DNA-based tools are already used in clinical application: “DNA-based capsules can embed antibodies that specifically target the cancer cells they destroy”underlines the researcher.

The development of the nanorobot is the result of four years of research. If only one model (already protected by a patent) exists today, the team of scientists is already working on its improvement: “We could imagine different activation systems, an electromagnetic field or a laser for example”. As for the missions that will be entrusted to him: “We are only limited by our imagination”.

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