• Credit: Mallouk Lab/Penn State

In the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, a medical crew is shrunken to microscopic size and injected into the body of a dying diplomat. Although shrinking human beings remains a fantasy, the idea of micro-scaled anatomical intervention is becoming reality, especially with a new biomedical technology created by scientists at Pennsylvania State University.

On the same February day that I happened to be lecturing at Penn State's architecture and landscape architecture school, researchers in the chemistry department published an article on their development of the world's first controllable intracellular nanomotor. The new rod-shaped motor is made of gold and ruthenium, and is controlled by ultrasonic and magnetic waves. The scientists injected nanomotors into human cervical cancer cells, moving them around freely between cell organelles.

"As these nanomotors move around and bump into structures inside the cells, the live cells show internal mechanical responses that no one has seen before," said materials chemistry and physics professor Tom Mallouk in a Penn State news release. "This research is a vivid demonstration that it may be possible to use synthetic nanomotors to study cell biology in new ways. We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside. Nanomotors could perform intracellular surgery and deliver drugs noninvasively to living tissues."

Mallouk and his team claim that the new motors can be used to blend a cell's contents or even rupture its membrane. In the case of undesirable cells, such as cancer, this newfound ability is good news. However, this is another example of a technology one hopes does not fall into malevolent hands. Despite the potential biological hazards, the researchers are eagerly advancing the project with aspirations of bringing about a new age in medicine.

"One dream application of ours is Fantastic Voyage-style medicine, where nanomotors would cruise around inside the body, communicating with each other and performing various kinds of diagnoses and therapy," Mallouk said in the release. "There are lots of applications for controlling particles on this small scale, and understanding how it works is what's driving us."

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.