Can nanorobots help treat hard-to-reach cancers?

Los Angeles County has produced a series of revolutionary medication delivery devices – from the first asthma inhaler in the 1960s, to the insulin pump and nicotine patch in the 1980s, to inhaled insulin in the course of the last decade.

Now a local company is bidding to merge medicine with nanotechnology with a revolutionary drug delivery method. Palms-based Bionaut Labs Inc. is developing nano-robots that can be injected into human tissue and then guided to other parts of the body to deliver chemotherapy or other drugs to treat brain or brain cancers. other hard-to-reach areas.

The nano-robots, which the company calls “bionauts”, are less than a millimeter long and are magnetically guided to their destination, where they deliver their drug payload. Nano-robots can also be used to perform delicate surgical procedures that may be too risky for surgery by conventional means, such as puncturing cysts in the brain or spinal cord.

“We really zoomed in on the idea of ​​building a little robot for any treatment that can go anywhere in the body on demand and deliver the treatment where it’s needed,” said Michael Shpigelmacher, one of the co-founders of Bionaut Labs and its leader. executive.

Israeli Army Roots

Shpigelmacher and the other initial co-founder, Aviad Maizels, met while both serving in the IDF. After their service ended, they decided to partner up and form PrimeSense, an Israeli 3D motion sensor company that was acquired by Apple Inc. in 2015 for around $350 million.

After the sale, Shpigelmacher moved to the United States and entered the MBA program at Columbia University in New York. He then joined a biotechnology industry consulting firm, where he helped companies extend their patents.

“That’s when I realized a key realization: When it came to treating cancers and other diseases, it all came down to getting a drug into the bloodstream,” Shpigelmacher said. . “But it felt like the wrong way to go. Why flood the bloodstream – which runs through the whole body – when what you really want to do is target a specific area of ​​the body? »

Shpigelmacher contacted his former IDF pal, Maizels. The duo discovered research at the Max Planck Institute in Germany on directed nano-robots.
“It’s a really old idea – just look at that 1960s ‘Fantastic Voyage’ movie,” Shpigelmacher explained. “But now, 50 years later, the technology has taken a leap forward. And while most people were content to continue their research in this area, we decided the time was right to develop an actual product that would deliver drug therapies throughout the body.

Armed with an initial $1 million in seed money from their own savings, family and friends, Shpigelmacher and Maizels launched Bionaut Labs in 2017. The duo was later joined by fellow PrimeSense co-founder Alexander Shpunt.
The nano-robot transport device they developed can be inserted into tissue anywhere in the body. It uses magnetic technology for propulsion, which allows the nano robot to be controlled by operators outside, using images on a video monitor for guidance. Once the nano-robot reaches its destination, it can either unload its payload of drugs or deploy tools for surgery. Once the mission is complete, the nano robot is brought back to the insertion point and extracted.

Shpigelmacher said the nano robot can unload a drug payload in a single burst or in a more diffuse fashion. And it can discharge medicine that dissolves over a period of weeks. This last approach seems more suitable for chemotherapy treatments applied over time.

On the surgery side, the nano robot can make surgical incisions in small clusters of cells directly at the site of the tumor or cyst.
Key to both applications of nanorobot technology is video, according to bioengineering professor Song Li, who is chair of the bioengineering department at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, “The imaging modality is important , because it is a guided therapy”. Li said. “You need these tips to achieve what you want.”

Surgical tests

The first step to commercialization is to test the nano robot without a drug payload.
Bionaut Labs has applied for and received a Humanitarian Use Designation from the Food and Drug Administration to use the device on patients with DandyWalker Syndrome, a rare pediatric disorder where a cyst encroaches on key areas of the brain. Conventional treatment involves brain surgery to puncture the cyst and relieve pressure on other affected areas of the brain. Given the major intrusion into brain tissue, surgery can be very risky.

Instead, Bionaut’s transport device – with a miniaturized surgical accessory – can reach the affected area from the inside.
Shpigelmacher said Bionaut Labs is currently in talks with clinical trial centers to convince them to perform trials of the nano robot with this surgical application.

According to Shpigelmacher, Bionaut Labs’ biggest challenge is the continued resistance from some quarters of the medical establishment to this targeted approach.
“We find that we need to develop a rationale to change the paradigm for big pharma from flooding the bloodstream to much more precise targeting of treatment,” he said.
UCLA’s Li said if Bionaut Labs can push its nano-robot approach through all the hoops of approval, it shows great potential.

“On the drug therapy side, it’s a way to integrate imaging, biomaterials, and drug delivery,” Li said. “And for surgery, if there’s a pathway to move surgical materials to the right site, then it becomes a very powerful tool for diagnosis and surgery.”

Overall, if Bionaut Labs is successful, its nano-robots could join the pantheon of game-changing drug delivery inventions by Los Angeles corporations, according to Ahmed Enany, chief executive of the Southern California Biomedical Council, a trade organization in Los Angeles. industry based in Westwood.
“If the company succeeds in bringing its microbot to market, it will be another ‘Los Angeles first,'” Enany said.

Mavis R. Bernier