Throughout history doctors have sought to help the human body repair itself. Over the years, many new procedures have been added to the physician’s toolkit – x-rays, anesthesia, antibiotics, surgery, and more recently, stem cells and genetic engineering. For the most part though, doctors still rely on the body’s own trusted healing abilities.
Nearly all sickness, injury, and stress can be traced to cellular malfunction, but physicians have not yet perfected technologies to replace or renew damaged cells. Today, tools do not exist that enable scientists to enter individual cells and make repairs at this molecular level.
To obtain such tools, experts say, researchers need to further develop molecular nanotechnology and create assemblers; self-replicating devices that allow scientists to grab individual atoms and form them into materials similar to the way that life fashions its miracles – plants, animals, and us.
With assemblers, researchers can then create the ultimate medical tool – nanobots. These tiny micro-robots will have built-in power supplies, sensors, and onboard computers to direct activities.
Medical nanobots will be very small. To travel through the bloodstream they must be tiny enough to squeeze through the narrowest capillaries in the body. But these marvels hold the greatest promise for curing disease and improving health; and according to nano-expert Robert Freitas in a recent Futurist Magazine article, the first fruits of these creations could begin appearing in clinical treatments by mid-to-late 2020s.
Medical nanobots can easily repair individual cells. Freitas mentions a procedure where cell-repair ‘bots called “chromallocytes” would seek out damaged and aging cells and immediately make repairs, creating a new younger cell.
Chromallocytes would also replace inherited genes that cause dangerous genetic diseases; but even more important, they would erase the damage and mutations that lead to human aging, keeping our bodies forever young and healthy. And the best part – these ‘bots could be created inexpensively with personal nanofactories.
Right now, medical nanobots are just theory. To actually build them, researchers need to further develop molecular nanotechnology – the ability to create new materials atom-by-atom. The first proof that individual atoms could be manipulated occurred in 1989 when IBM scientists spelled out the IBMlogo with 35 xenon atoms.
How is the medical community accepting the possibility of nanobots? My primary care physician, formerly a nonbeliever in many of the futuristic technologies I discuss, now accepts that nanobots will one day become an important part of healthcare.
Freitas also addresses drug company concerns. Rather than creating single-action drugs, Big Pharma can shift to licensing disease-specific nanobots, customized to each patient’s genome.
Even though tomorrow’s ‘bots could be produced in personal nanofactories, issues such as IP rights, quality control, legal liabilities, trustworthiness and government regulations could allow Big Pharma to retain a significant role in medical nano-machines; even in an era of widespread at-home personal nano-manufacturing.
Nanobots hold great promise for future humans who may never know what it’s like to suffer disease and pain, or grow old. Though visionaries differ on how many years we might expect to enjoy living an indefinite lifespan, most experts are confident that this “magical future” will happen, and it could include many of today’s active and healthy ‘boomers and seniors.