Could This Super Fast Nanomotor Make a Difference?

Chris Newmarker

December 16, 2015

4 Min Read
Could This Super Fast Nanomotor Make a Difference?

UT Austin engineers are boasting a nanomotor with the speed of a jet airplane engine.

Chris Newmarker

It is less than 1 ?m in size--able to fit inside a single human cell. And it can rotate for 15 continuous hours at a whopping 18,000 rpm.

University of Texas at Austin engineers are touting what they say is one of the smallest, fastest, and longest-running synthetic motors ever created.

One potential use is targeted drug delivery. "The higher the rotation speed, the higher the release speed. We can control the release of molecules in this manner," says Donglei "Emma" Fan, PhD, the UT Austin mechanical engineering professor who led the team of researchers who designed the motor. (See Fan discuss nanorobots at MD&M West, February 9-11, 2016, in Anaheim, CA.)

Fan and her colleagues are also examining the potential to package the motor as a nanorobot component.

Creating nanorobots to detect and fight disease has been one of the great dreams among medical device innovators. Scripps Health (San Diego) chief academic officer Eric Topol, MD, has been working with Axel Scherer, PhD, of Caltech, to create bloodstream nanosensors to help prevent heart attacks. And there have even been hints out of Google, which recently spun its medical innovation work into a sister company called Verify, of developing disease-detecting nanoparticles.

The UT Austin nanomotor could prove a useful component when it comes to endeavors such as creating extremely tiny machines that could navigate through the human body to administer insulin for diabetics when needed, or target and treat cancer cells.

The UT Austin group drew on a technique that Fan invented while studying at Johns Hopkins University. Fan's technique uses AC and DC electric fields to assemble the nanomotor's parts one by one.

Tested in a nonbiological setting, the three-part nanomotor was found to be able to rapidly mix and pump biochemicals and move through liquids. The ability to establish and control drug molecule release rate by mechanical rotation gives the nanomotor an advantage when it comes to drug delivery and cell-to-cell communications, according to Fan.

The research was published in the April edition of Nature Communications. UT Austin graduate students Kwanoh Kim, Xiaobin Xu, and Jianhe Guo co-authored the study.

Fan declined to go into much detail about how the nanomotor was created, but said the work designing it involved a lengthy "rational process based on understanding": optimizing the frequency of the electric fields used to create the motor, optimizing the materials used, reducing the size of the electrodes.

"Our design is completely new. No one and else has this type of design," Fan says.

Fan and her colleagues are now engaged in the next step of testing the nanomotors with living cells in vitro. (Fan declined to discuss how the research is going.) Fan is hopeful of getting the nanomotors involved with in vivo applications in at least five years.

Overall, Fan is optimistic of progress when it comes to using nanorobots inside the human body, but also acknowledges there are important challenges for researchers to overcome. They include figuring out how to employ imaging and tracking systems along with the robots, and how to effectively navigate through the human body.

"People's bodies inside are very complicated. ... How do you observe them when you deliver it? How do you pass through different parts?"

(See Fan discuss nanorobots at MD&M West, February 9-11, 2016, in Anaheim, CA.)

Chris Newmarker is senior editor of Qmed and MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker.

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