The tiny robots are able to move within a patient’s body to treat tumours. A major challenge is how to make the tiny machines move against the blood flow

Nanorobots on track to revolutionise disease treatment, making 1960s sci-fi movie a reality within a decade

In the 1966 sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage, a submarine and its crew are shrunk to the size of a microbe so they can be injected into the bloodstream of an injured scientist to repair a deadly blood clot in his brain.

For decades, real-life scientists have been fascinated by the technology depicted in the film. “Fantastic Voyage describes the future of nanorobots,” said Gao Wei, 34, a California Institute of Technology professor who co-developed a microrobotic system that can be guided towards specific parts of the digestive tract to treat tumours.

In the future, a tiny machine will be able to travel inside a human body to precisely deliver drugs, perform surgery or stimulate neurons in the brain, he said.

Sun Dong, chair professor of biomedical engineering at Hong Kong City University, believes the scenario will be a reality “in the coming decade” after his team injected drug-carrying nanorobots into mice and successfully inhibited the spread of cancerous tumours.

A nanorobot, just one billionth of a metre wide, is roughly the size of a cell – or even smaller – but its application in health care is helping scientists bring the sci-fi world depicted in Fantastic Voyage closer to reality.

“There are plenty of experiments in vivo now and it is reasonable to expect nanorobots in use for human disease cure within 10 to 15 years,” said Sun, who has conducted research into robotics and cell-based bioengineering since graduating from Beijing’s Tsinghua University more than a decade ago.

Last year his team developed a 3D-printed nanoscale robot that can manoeuvre at a cellular level. They are now working on a trial of nanorobots designed to repair the meniscus, the thin fibrous cartilage between knee joints.

“With traditional medical methods, drugs cannot reach the target site directly, so the meniscus is difficult to repair after injuries. But nanorobots carrying drugs can directly reach the precise location and solve the problem.”