Sabine Hauert and some of her 1,000 Kilobots, which test nanoparticle interactions at a macro scale.
Sabine Hauert wants to inject cancer patients with a trillion killer nanobots. The 32-year-old swarm engineer at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory is building smart nanoparticles that can work together as targeted cancer killers.
“Research has shown that smart nanoparticles can communicate through the environment, like ants laying trails for the rest of the swarm to follow,” she explains. One study found that communicating nanoparticles can deliver a 40 times higher dose of anti-cancer drugs to a tumour than those that don’t interact.
Hauert’s nanoparticles have no embedded electronics or software to guide them — their size, coating and composition have been designed to create communication and swarm-like behaviour.
“They can react to light, magnetic fields or chemicals,” she says.
To help identify useful combinations, Hauert created a crowdsourcing platform called NanoDoc, allowing anyone to design a nanoparticle. More than 80,000 simulations have been run since its launch in September 2013. Last August, Hauert assembled a 1,000-strong swarm of Kilobots — simple 33mm robots designed at Harvard University — to test these simulations on a macro scale. Its findings: her nanoparticles had a small bug.
“They would actually just stick to the first cancer cell they met, rather than penetrating deep into the tumour,” she says. The solution: “A two-step nanoparticle with a coating that slowly wears off, allowing the smart particle to go deeper into the tumour.”
Ultimately, she believes that the lessons learned can be applied to collectives of much larger robots, whether for cleaning up an oil spill or finding victims of an earthquake. Power to the swarm.