Medical nanobots fight cancer in the 22nd century

Nanobot concept image

A conceptual image of a nanobot injecting a red corpuscle. Image courtesy OMICS Publishing Group.

In the 22nd century world of Carbon Run, robots of all shapes and sizes are as ubiquitous as cars and cell phones are today. That includes tiny robots, which I prefer to call “nanobots,” although some writers like “nanites” or “nanomachines.” In this scene from chapter 11, Colonel Raleigh Penn of the Bureau of Environmental Security is undergoing tests to determine the results of an experimental treatment for a glioblastoma multiforme, the worst kind of brain tumor. Dr. Morris Pierson is the researcher, and Dr. Irina Korsakov is his lead assistant.

“Irina Korsakov, with subject Raleigh Penn.” The lock clicked, and the pair stepped into a room divided by a partition. A desk with two large monitors took up one side. A tall, heavy piece of equipment, labeled a “Quantum Movement Imager,” occupied the other half. An adult could stand inside with plenty of elbow room. Korsakov guided the Colonel into the imager and asked him to place his feet on two marks shaped like the soles of shoes. Korsakov departed and appeared behind a pane of glass that allowed her to observe the Colonel. “How are you feeling?” Korsakov said, her voice coming from a speaker.

The Colonel pushed down a fresh bout of anxiety. “Fine.”

“Good. I’m going to lower the imaging ring now. The light above you will dim.“

“Yes, doctor, I’ve done this several times before.”

A doughnut shaped object drifted down slowly from the QMI’s ceiling above the Colonel, covering his cranium. His head fit inside the donut’s hole with plenty of room to spare. A tone sounded, and the donut rotated, left to right, indicated by a set of vertical bars spaced every few inches that passed in front of the Colonel’s eyes. After a single 360-degree rotation, which took about two minutes, the donut stopped.

“Stand by, please. I’m reviewing the images.” A pause. “QMI successful.”

The donut rose slowly back into the ceiling.

A few minutes later, the Colonel and Pierson gazed at the three-dimensional QMI of the Colonel’s brain displayed by a holo-emitter in the lab. Korsakov watched over their shoulders. In the projection, every fold, shadow, blood vessel, even the glistening reflection of light on the gray tissue’s surface was represented. The Colonel wanted to reach out, imagining that he saw a solid object that would react to his touch.

Touching keys and a joystick, the doctor manipulated the Colonel’s projected brain. He tapped the space bar several times, zooming in with each click, stopping above a yawning chasm in the neo-cortex. Pushing the joystick forward, he dove between the chasm’s walls like an aircraft flying into a canyon. The magnification increased as well. Thin branches of bright red arteries and purplish veins swelled into behemoth pipelines, pulsing with the heart’s action and arterial pressure. Even though they were deep inside the brain, the QMI renderer lit the scene as brightly as an operating room. After more twists, turns, and higher magnification, Pierson and his entranced passengers came to an area lighter in color than the surrounding tissue.

The Colonel’s eyes narrowed; he sensed something wrong. “My tumor can’t have grown that much, doctor. That doesn’t look right.”

Pierson remained silent as he hovered over the disorganized jumble of tissue and blood vessels. This was the mass of malevolent cells that would kill the Colonel within the year, unless the experiments worked. The doctor touched a key and the magnification increased a thousand-fold. Now the Colonel saw pulsing clumps of cells and, as the magnification and image contrast increased further, individual neurons, some pale but alive, others on the verge of death, their dendrites and axons withered like the fingers of an arthritic hand. Other cells, as misshapen as goblins, looked nothing like their healthy or even sick cousins. These were the mutated cancer cells. Then the Colonel noticed dark dots, some tiny as pinheads, some splotchy and irregular. Magnified further, the objects swam in the intercellular fluid, like animal plankton. The pinheads were individual nanobots.

“The clumps!” The Colonel pointed at the hologram. “The robots are swarming on the cancer cells, working together, just like you programmed them.”

Again, Pierson did not respond, instead focusing his intense concentration on one group of robots attacking a cancer cell. The monster squirmed in its death throes, then disintegrated, the mitochondria, ribosomes, and diseased nucleus spilling through a huge tear in the cell membrane. The nanobots, as if sensing their victory, scattered in search of another cell to attack and destroy. The Colonel watched for a few more minutes, until his eyes began to hurt. He also disliked Pierson’s unexpected reticence. Korsakov made no sound either, her mood dark. The doctor took reams of notes as if the Colonel didn’t exist.

The trio returned to Pierson’s office, and they asked the Colonel to wait in reception. The rain and clouds thickened as late morning turned to early afternoon. The Colonel powered up his com and surfed for a while, tired of the constant low-level worry, wishing he could return to his hotel room and rest for an hour before the doctor rendered a verdict. As the Colonel picked his raincoat off the rack, Pierson appeared beside the reception desk. “Good, I’m glad I caught you.”

“I was going out for a few minutes, get some air.”

“I have some preliminary results, Colonel.” Pierson was downcast. “We can wait, or we can go over them now.”

The Colonel’s sense of vulnerability returned, and he winced. “Let’s get it over with.”

What do you think? Are medical nanobots possible?

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