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These tiny, light-activated nanomachines can kill cancer cells within minutes

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50,000 of them are the width of a strand of human hair

A graphic showing the tiny nanomachine

Scientists have developed tiny, light-activated nanomachines that can drill into cancer cells and kill them within minutes.

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists who discovered how to build these nanomachines out of a chain of atoms. For a study published in the journal Nature, scientists built several of these nanomachines. When activated by light, the nanomachines targeted specific cells and broke through the membrane, rapidly killing them.

The machines are so tiny that 50,000 of them together is still about the width of a single strand of human hair. Each machine is engineered to be sensitive to a protein located on a specific type of cell, which helped them find their target. Once you add light, they spin up to 3 million times per second, and this spinning provides the power needed to break into a cell. Without light, the nanomachines can still find the molecule, but just remain on the surface.

When scientists let these nanomachines loose in a dish full of human kidney cells, the nanomachines made holes in the cells and killed them within minutes. The same thing happened when the nanomachines were unleashed on cancerous prostate cells. This technology isn’t super close, since the next experiments are still only on the scale of micro-organisms and fish. But in the future, these machines could be used to either deliver medicine very precisely, or actually kill cancer cells, leading the way to new forms of treatment.