Bladder cancer, the new frontier could be nanorobots

Bladder cancer, the new frontier could be nanorobots

Nanoscopic robots with self-propelled capabilities and capable of transporting therapies directly into the tumor. It is not science fiction, but a technology already being tested, which, at least in animal models, is giving good results. A Spanish team tested them on mice with bladder tumors, managing to reduce the size of the masses by 90% with a single application.

Bladder cancer

Bladder cancer is one of the most frequent cancers globally. In Italy, according to Aiom-Airtum data, over 29 thousand new cases are estimated in 2023, mostly men (23,700). Although mortality 5 years after diagnosis is around 80%, the risk of recurrence is very high, which requires continuous monitoring of patients, frequent hospital visits and often the need to repeat treatments.

Nanorobots as vehicles

To try to improve the effectiveness of therapies for bladder cancer and reduce associated healthcare costs, a team of researchers from the Institute of Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) and CIC biomaGUNE, in collaboration with the Institute of Research in Biomedicine ( IRB Barcelona) and the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), are testing the use of nanorobots to deliver therapies at a local level. These are tiny porous silica spheres which on the surface are equipped with various functional components, primarily radioactive iodine which is used for the localized treatment of tumors. Another functional component of the surface of the nanorobots is the urease enzyme, which, like a sort of protein motor, reacts with the urea present in the urine allowing the nanomachine to move and reach all the walls of the bladder. As shown in the research published on Nature Nanotechnologywith a single dose of nanorobots researchers managed to reduce tumor masses in model animals by 90%.

Inside the tumor

What particularly surprised the researchers was that not only did the nanorobots confirm that they can move autonomously to cover the entire organ, but that this propulsion promotes their accumulation in the tumor mass. Through imaging techniques such as PET, and above all thanks to a new specially developed fluorescence microscopy technique, scientists have reconstructed the organs in 3D and found that the nanorobots reached the tumor and penetrated the diseased tissue, thus enhancing the action of the radiopharmaceutical and reducing side effects. In short, although the nanorobots – the authors specify – are not equipped with specific antibodies to identify tumor cells, they were still concentrated in the neoplastic mass because they are capable of altering the tumor environment – in particular of breaking down the extracellular matrix by altering the surrounding pH – and to penetrate it.

Nanorobots inside the tumor (Credits: IRB Barcelona)

Nanorobots inside the tumor (Credits: IRB Barcelona)

Future prospects

We are still in a preclinical phase, but the positive results are encouraging: the next steps will be to ascertain the recurrence rate of bladder tumors after treatment with nanorobots and to test the use of more powerful radiopharmaceuticals, whose use today is limited for possible adverse effects at a systemic level.

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