Skip to main content

Scientists control tiny motors inside cells

February 12, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Nanomotors -- tiny gold rods -- interact with HeLa cells.
Nanomotors -- tiny gold rods -- interact with HeLa cells.
  • Nanomotors are small particles that move around inside cells
  • Scientists used ultrasonic waves to propel the nanomotors
  • The tiny particles can act like egg beaters or pierce the cell membrane
  • There are implications down the line for cancer treatment, drug delivery

(CNN) -- Tiny rocket-shaped metal particles might one day take a wild ride inside your body.

Researchers have, for the first time, installed "nanomotors" inside live human cells, they report in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

These "nanomotors" are small synthetic motors, consisting of gold rods, that move around inside cells, and can wreak havoc in a way that might one day be used to treat diseases.

"You could imagine if you had a way to get these specifically inside just cancer cells, you could then crank up the power and kill all those cells," said Tom Mallouk, senior author of the study and professor of materials chemistry and physics at Pennsylvania State University.

Tell us your story
We love to hear from our audience. Follow @CNNHealth on Twitter and Facebook for the latest health news and let us know what we're missing.

Future applications of the nanomotors could also include delivering drugs and performing surgery within a cell.

But that's all a long way off, Mallouk said. The nanomotors have not been tested inside animals of any kind, including humans -- a process that could take a decade. Mallouk's team is still at the basic science stage.

"We're more interested in understanding how these things work and using it as a tool to understand cell biology," he said.

Researchers used gold rods that are 300 nanometers in diameter and 3 micrometers long. That's less than the thickness of a human hair.

What's special about nanotechnology

Nanomotors powered by chemicals took shape for the first time 10 years ago at Penn State. In those early days, toxic fuels were needed to power the nanomotors and scientists couldn't get them to move in biological fluid. That meant they couldn't be used in human cells.

For this study, instead of toxic fuel, scientists used ultrasonic waves to propel the nanomotors, directing the spin or forward movements. They used magnetic forces to steer the nanomotors.

The nanomotors don't do much at low ultrasonic power. Turn it up, though, and the nanomotors start bustling. They bump into organelles -- mini-structures in a cell. Acting like egg beaters, the nanomotors can make the cell's contents homogenous. Or they can pierce the cell membrane.

"When we tickle a certain part of the cell, we see a mechanical part in another part of the cell, which is kind of surprising," Mallouk said.

A special line of cells was used for this study that has gotten a lot of attention: HeLa cells. These cells came from the cancerous cervical tumor of Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer who never knew that her cells were going to be used in research.

Scientists have used Lacks' cells for researching the genes that cause and suppress several kinds of cancer, and for developing drug treatments for a variety of conditions, writes Rebecca Skloot in her book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

Can we control our genetic destiny?

For the nanomotor experiments, researchers used HeLa cells because of "their popularity in biomedical research, as well as their ease of handling and growth," the study said.

The nanomotors can also attach to the surface of the cells, and move between cells.

"If somebody who knows about cancer sees a way to cure cancer with these things, that's great," Mallouk said. "I'd be glad to talk to them.'

Part of complete coverage on
Science news
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1934 GMT (0334 HKT)
Nichelle Nichols has spent her whole life going where no one has gone before, and at 81 she's still as sassy and straight-talking as you'd expect from an interstellar explorer.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1152 GMT (1952 HKT)
The world's largest flying aquatic insect, with huge, nightmarish pincers, has been discovered in China's Sichuan province.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
As fans of "Grey's Anatomy," "ER" and any other hospital-based show can tell you, emergency-room doctors are fighting against time.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Ask 100 robotics scientists why they're inspired to create modern-day automatons and you may get 100 different answers.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
From the air, the Namibian desert looks like it has a bad case of chicken pox.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1643 GMT (0043 HKT)
The trend for nature-inspired designs has spread across industries from crab-style deep-sea vessels to insect-inspired buildings.
May 25, 2014 -- Updated 1222 GMT (2022 HKT)
Consider it the taxonomist's equivalent of a People magazine's Most Beautiful List.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1532 GMT (2332 HKT)
For the first time, scientists have shown it is possible to alter the biological alphabet and still have a living organism that passes on the genetic information.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
Do we really want to go the route of "Jurassic Park"?
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Catch a train from the sky! Perhaps in the future, the high-rise superstructures could help revolutionize the way we travel.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1458 GMT (2258 HKT)
In a nondescript hotel ballroom last month at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, Andras Forgacs offered a rare glimpse at the sci-fi future of food.
March 20, 2014 -- Updated 1412 GMT (2212 HKT)
For a Tyrannosaurus rex looking for a snack, nothing might have tasted quite like the "chicken from hell."
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 2229 GMT (0629 HKT)
Everyone is familiar with Tyrannosaurus rex, but humanity is only now meeting its much smaller Arctic cousin.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 1712 GMT (0112 HKT)
At about 33 feet long, weighing 4 to 5 tons and baring large blade-shaped teeth, the dinosaur Torvosaurus gurneyi was a formidable creature.
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
This Pachyrhinosaurus can go to the head of its class.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1204 GMT (2004 HKT)
Science is still trying to work out how exactly we reason through moral problems, and how we judge others on the morality of their actions. But patterns are emerging.
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 0006 GMT (0806 HKT)
A promising way to stop a deadly disease, or an uncomfortable step toward what one leading ethicist called eugenics?
February 15, 2014 -- Updated 0107 GMT (0907 HKT)
Seattle paleontologists safely removed the largest fossilized mammoth tusk discovered in the region from a construction site.
April 23, 2013 -- Updated 1013 GMT (1813 HKT)
A mysterious, circular structure, with a diameter greater than the length of a Boeing 747 jet, has been discovered submerged about 30 feet underneath the Sea of Galilee in Israel.
January 17, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Every corner of the planet offers some sort of natural peculiarity with an explanation that makes us wish we'd studied harder in junior high Earth science class.
November 14, 2013 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Deep in a remote, hot, dry patch of northwestern Australia lies one of the earliest detectable signs of life on the planet, tracing back nearly 3.5 billion years, scientists say.
September 4, 2013 -- Updated 1910 GMT (0310 HKT)
We leave genetic traces of ourselves wherever we go -- in a strand of hair left on the subway or in saliva on the side of a glass at a cafe.