BusinessDay: There is a robot in my bloodstream working its magic

By Johan Steyn, 7 September 2021

Published by Business Day:

“Daddy, how big is the coronavirus?” During the first lockdown, my son was asking many questions about the pandemic. “Can we see it?”

To answer this question, I used examples from around the home. I thought it best to start with millimetres (mm): an ant is on average 5mm long and the head of a pin is about 1-2mm wide. To go smaller, I tried to explain the nanoscale: the prefix “nano” means one-billionth of a metre or 10 to the power of 9.

This made me wonder: how big is a virus? It seems the answer is about 100 nanometres (nm).

A sheet of paper is about 100,000nm thick and a human hair is about 80,000nm wide. Then the geek in me started wondering about how small computing technology could become. Could a computer chip be so small that we cannot see it? What if we inhaled it, or what if it was injected into our bloodstream?

In 1965, Gordon Moore, Intel’s then-chair, projected that the number of transistors on a computer chip would quadruple every year. Many people nowadays are anticipating the collapse of Moore’s Law in the near future due to the constraints of silicon semiconductors and the laws of physics. Scientists have been experimenting with novel materials and techniques to cram more transistors onto circuits, and they have discovered a means to reduce transistor connections without sacrificing performance in carbon nanotube devices.

Nanorobotics encompasses several fields, including nanofabrication techniques for nanomotors, nanoactuators, and nanosensors, as well as physical modelling at nanoscales.

Approval hurdles

Nanomedicine is the latest and most practical use of this technology, which employs nanotechnology to enhance illness research, diagnosis, and therapy at the single-molecule level. Self-propelled nanomotors and other biodegradable nanodevices composed of bio-nano components can transport medicines to sick cells in our bodies.

Nanomedicine technology is in its infancy and there are many technological, ethical and governmental approval hurdles to overcome. Predictions are that the nanotech market will exceed $125bn by 2024 and that the smart pill market will reach $650m by 2025.

The following technology is already in medical use:

  • The ingestible camera PillCam was the first FDA-approved smart pill in 2001. PillCams have already been used in millions of operations.

  • Constipation is efficiently treated using vibrating Vibrant capsules that induce muscular contractions to restart digestion without the need for laxatives or any severe adverse effects.

  • Dose-tracking pills contain a sensor that relays data through a patch worn by the patient, tracking dosage adherence.

Medical nanotech under development includes:

  • Atmo gas capsules, in which gases pass via a permeable membrane into the capsule, where sensors monitor amounts of oxygen, hydrogen and CO2. Researchers may use oxygen levels to determine the capsule’s position, while hydrogen provides important information about the microbiota of the stomach.

  • Smart sensor capsules, which unfold into a Y-shape, lodging in the stomach where it tracks vital signs for diagnosis and treatment monitoring. Preloaded compartments can be customised to release medications and are controlled by Bluetooth technology. These capsules are under development at MIT.

I am glad to be able to tell my son that despite the coronavirus being very small, we will have effective treatment in future of hitherto incurable diseases due to nanotechnology.

• Steyn is a smart automation & artificial intelligence thought leader and management consultant. He is the chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.