"You enter the wellness center and tell the receptionist avatar that you're here for an annual restoration, and though your real age is 110, you would like to be restored to the age of a 20-something. A nurse then injects billions of genome-specific 'bots non-invasively through the skin; you're now set for another year."
The above scenario may sound like something out of a sci-fi tale, but experts predict nanorobotics will one day turn this fantasy into reality. Nanotech pioneer Robert Freitas believes that as the technology matures, every adult's appearance could be restored once a year to a biological age chosen by the individual. Freitas and futurist Ray Kurzweil discuss this wonder-science in a recent interview.
Freitas has designed 'bots smaller than red blood cells that can travel through the human body destroying harmful pathogens and repairing faulty DNA. The tiny machines would be constructed of carbon atoms, and powered by utilizing glucose or natural sugars and oxygen from the body.
Doctors would not only use nanorobots to correct problems like heart disease, cancer, or damages suffered from normal aging processes, but could also direct them to strengthen and enhance other parts of the body. These computer-guided creations would restore aging bones, muscles, eyesight, and teeth to a biologically perfect state. When finished, the 'smart' 'bots would exit the body through urine.
Experts envision that these creations will be manufactured in home nanofactories, using special nano-scale tools capable of forming them to specifications required for each job. The design, shape, size and type of atoms, molecules, and components used in their makeup would always be task-specific.
Will the drug giants fill a role in tomorrow's nano-world? "Yes", Freitas says. "Issues such as IP rights, quality, design, software, and government regulation should allow Big Pharma to retain a significant role in nano-machine manufacture, even in an era of widespread personal nanofactory use."
In addition, drug companies could assume liability for errors, experts say. Patients need a legally responsible entity they can sue in case of mistakes or defective products. No one wants 'robots gone wild' roaming through their bodies. Raw materials and labor for construction would be nearly cost-free; and even though Big Pharma gets part of the action, nanorobots will still be a very affordable health tool.
Freitas offers an example of a medical nanorobot he designed that would act as a red blood cell. It consists of carbon atoms in a diamond pattern to create a spherical pressurized tank with "molecular sorting rotors," which could grab and store oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules.
Respirocytes, as he calls his creations, each consist of 18-billion atoms and can hold 9-billion oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules, 200 times the capacity of human blood cells. The added capacity would allow a person to run at full speed for 15 minutes without taking a breath – no more huffing and puffing.
Other nanorobot creations include artificial white blood cells called microbivores, that seek and digest harmful bloodborne pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Even if a bacterium has acquired drug resistance to antibiotics, the microbivore would hunt it down and destroy it.
Microbivores would completely clear blood-borne infections in hours or less, much faster than the weeks or months needed for antibiotic-based cures. Other proposed applications will eliminate tumors, remove circulatory obstructions that cause heart attacks, and prevent brain damage in stroke victims.
Freitas mentions a procedure where 'bots called 'chromallocytes' would seek out aging cells and make repairs, or replace the cell with a new younger version. Chromosome replacement therapy will not only repair aging damages; but would also eradicate any disease in the patient's body that might cause death.
This remarkable technology promises huge advances in extending healthy lifespan, and is not limited to Freitas' efforts. Other nanorobot research underway, include University of Southern California; Cornell University; Monash University; and Ecole Polytechnique, Montreal. It's the dream of most future watchers, including this writer, that we will one day say goodbye to aging and hello to being forever young and healthy. Freitas predicts nanobots could appear in clinical trials by mid-2020s. Comments welcome.
Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.
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