In an age when technology is seemingly capable of incredible new breakthroughs, from AI to the driverless car, many of us wonder about how tech will begin to affect our everyday lives. We often hear speculations that modern science, thanks to innovations in medical technology, will prolong not just our quality of life but also our actual lifespans, even at the same time as climate fears compel us to prevaricate about the colonisation of new planets.
One modern tech company trying to make headway in the medical space is Rubius Theraputics, a startup currently developing a genetically-engineered ‘superblood’ to battle cancer, as well as a range of other illnesses. So far Rubius has raised $200 million from investors in under a year.
This sci-fi-sounding ‘superblood’ involves genetically-manipulated red blood cells which lack a nucleus and can thus evade the autoimmune system in order to carry therapeutic proteins all over the body, theoretically allowing doctors to replace missing enzymes, kill tumours, and even regulate the immune system to battle autoimmune diseases. The cells are calibrated to treat specific conditions affecting specific organs, and are administered by transfusion, ultimately replacing less than 1% of the total blood in the body.
In 2017 the Food and Drug Administration first approved two highly personalised cancer versions of cell therapy, although the ultimate idea is that Rubius won’t need to create personalised solutions—their superblood will eventually be a way of providing novel cellular therapies on an off-the-shelf basis. The current superblood, however, is made from an individual patient’s white blood cells (the part of the body’s immune system responsible for combating infections and foreign substances) which are then reengineered to recognise and destroy cancer cells. The reprogrammed cells are sent back and administered to the patient.
However even superblood sounds tame next to what researchers Jinxing and Tianlong Li have created: a tiny ‘nanofish’ designed to ‘swim’ through the bloodstream, delivering drugs to specific sites in the body. These nanobots, created from gold, silver and nickel, are even smaller than red blood cells—100 times smaller than a grain of sand, to be precise—allowing surgeons to deliver medicine more precisely, manipulate single cells or even perform non-invasive surgery.
In other words, we may be nearing the day that some of the most difficult surgical and therapeutic challenges currently faced by medical science are met with daring, forward-thinking solutions. It can be easy to focus on the negatives of scary-sounding technologies such as AI and nanorobotics, on the basis of how these new technologies could be militarised—but we should also remember that they may end up saving our lives.